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Friday, December 23, 2011

Spring Valley police shot and killed Haitian immigrant

NEW CITY — After meeting Thursday with the Rockland County district attorney and staff, the lawyer for the family of a mentally disturbed Spring Valley man shot to death during a confrontation with a police officer questioned whether the shooting was justified.

Sanford Rubenstein, a former Rockland legislator and a lawyer for Abner Louima, said during a news conference that while the family would anxiously await a grand jury determination, the legal litmus test was whether the officer feared for his life before shooting his gun.

Rubenstein, who specializes in high-profile brutality cases and represented Al Sharpton, said that even if reports are accurate that Herve Gilles took possession of the police officer’s nightstick and had bitten the officer, “I don’t know that justifies shooting someone in the head.”

“There is no justification unless there is fear of deadly physical force,” Rubenstein said. “If a criminal act was committed by the police officer, then the family wants the officer prosecuted. We will let the grand jury decide.”

Rubenstein said that during a morning meeting Zugibe promised the family members an “open, fair and independent” investigation into the shooting and review of the police action of Dec. 14.

A grand jury determination could come in late January after toxicology test results are available and investigators find witnesses to interview and testify before the panel.

Spring Valley police initially found the officer acted in self-defense after initial reports that Gilles attacked the officer, took his nightstick and bit the officer who attempted to arrest him.

The officer responded to a report from a local bar about a man creating a disturbance and, later, throwing rocks at the business’s windows.

District Attorney Thomas Zugibe didn’t return telephone calls seeking comment. Spring Valley police declined to comment. The police and prosecutors are not naming the officer.

The District Attorney’s Office will investigate the shooting and put all available witnesses and evidence before a grand jury. Grand jury investigations in six previous shootings over the years found the officers’ actions in those cases were justified and in self-defense.

Gilles’ fatal shooting bought an outpouring of support for him and his family. Five hundred people, many from the village’s Haitian-American community, demonstrated Sunday near the Municipal Plaza train station, where the shooting occurred on the parking lot of the El Buen Gusto bar and restaurant, 11 Furman Ave.

“We want justice,” said Marie Elias, a stepsister of Gilles, during Thursday’s news conference. “We as a family believe in the U.S. justice system. We hope nothing else likes this happens to anyone else as what happened to Herve.”

Rubenstein, who was raised in Rockland and now lives in New York City, stood with Elias, her half-brother, Valner Romain, and her husband, Beauceneque Elias, in front of the Rockland County Courthouse. Romain and the Eliases live in Mount Vernon.

Rubenstein and the family members said they urge witnesses to come forward and were awaiting details on what happened from Zugibe’s office and the police.

Members of the Gilles family are expected to discuss the case Saturday at Al Sharpton’s weekly rally. The rally, from 9 to 11 a.m., will be at the activist’s House of Justice, 106 W. 145th St. in Manhattan.

“At this point the family doesn’t know the facts,” Rubenstein said.

Gilles had mental health issues and had been taken by the police to the Rockland Health Department’s crisis center on occasions, Marie Elias said. She said she didn’t know his diagnosis, but he would get “weird.”

“He had been to (the crisis center) in the past,” she said, when the police would take him take by ambulance.

She said her brother was an easygoing man who didn’t look to hurt people.

“He was a very happy person, although he was mentally ill,” Marie Elias said. “Anyone who knew Herve knew he was known for making people laugh.”

Gilles, who had lived in Spring Valley off and on for two decades, also was known was known for getting loud and out of control when off his medication or drunk. Many of his friends in the village said he was never violent or dangerous.

Gilles died on the morning of Dec. 14 after police responded to a report from a security guard at El Buen Gusto that an emotionally disturbed man was creating a disturbance. The bar is in the village transportation center and Municipal Plaza.

The man was gone when the police arrived, but he returned at 3:21 a.m. and was throwing rocks, Police Chief Paul Modica has said.

The officer found the man, later identified as Gilles, in the rear parking lot and a fight erupted, with Gilles taking the officer’s nightstick and the officer shooting him in the face and chest, Modica said.

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