EASTON, Mass. — Danroy Henry Sr. wonders where his son would be and what he’d be doing if he were still alive today.
“He could be doing anything he wanted to honestly,” Henry said. “I think about: Would he have kids? Would he be an NFL player? Would he be retiring? Would he be on the sideline working? I don’t know what he’d be doing, but he had a ton of potential and I suspect that he would be realizing a lot of that right now.”
Instead, Danroy “DJ” Henry Jr., was fatally shot at age 20 when Pleasantville, New York, police officer Aaron Hess, who is white, fired four gunshots at DJ Henry’s moving vehicle. DJ Henry, a Pace University football player, was unarmed.
Hess has never been charged in DJ Henry’s death, despite the case going before a grand jury in 2011 and being reviewed by federal prosecutors in 2015.
Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of the day DJ Henry died — Oct. 17, 2010.
“October is a tough month for us — it has been and always will be — it’s Danny’s birthday month, it’s when we lost him, it’s my birthday, it’s our other son Kyle’s birthday month, it’s our anniversary month. It’s a challenging month,” Danroy Henry Sr. said. “…The pain today is as great as it was yesterday, it’s as great as it was 10 years ago. I’m not sure it’s a healable hole. Our son was murdered.”
What happened the night of DJ Henry’s death
At about 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 16, 2010, DJ Henry and others went to Finnegan’s in Thornwood, New York, a bar where many Pace players planned to gather that night. There a shoving match began between two men not involved in DJ Henry’s group of friends.
Police from two departments responded to the fight. After an officer asked Henry to move his Nissan Altima, he drove across a parking lot and onto an access road.
That’s where Pleasantville Officer Aaron Hess stepped in front of the car and ended up on the hood. Hess fired through the windshield, killing Henry and wounding one of his friends.
The officer said he believed Henry was trying to run him over. A grand jury cleared Hess of wrongdoing in 2011.
Million Man March:25 years ago, Black men united in their pain – and power
DJ Henry was handcuffed after the shooting and placed facedown on the ground, not given immediate treatment. Hess was treated for a knee injury.
Hess has said he repeatedly shouted for the car to stop and only fired shots into the vehicle’s windshield when he ended up on the hood and DJ Henry accelerated.
But some witnesses say Hess fired the first gunshot before he was on top of the sedan. A fellow officer later admitted to firing a gunshot at Hess because he thought Hess was “the aggressor” and Hess himself admitted several years later that he could have stepped out of the way of the car.
Robert Coulombe, a Pace University senior who filmed part of the police response at the bar, later tells The Associated Press that the killing was “over the top, aggressive and unnecessary.”
Later, a U.S. attorney would say Hess made “a split-second decision under conditions of extreme danger, conditions under which the law generally allows latitude to a police officer’s judgment.”
Family says police pushed ‘false narrative’
Danroy Henry said in the days after the incident, a “false narrative was put forward.”
A statement by the Mount Pleasant Police Department said DJ Henry sped off after an officer knocked on his car’s window. The statement said the car struck an officer and another officer attempted to pull the Pleasantville cop off the hood, but was also struck.
The Henrys said they knew what was being described to them was out of character for DJ.
“For us, it was just about the pursuit of absolute truth. That’s all we were looking for — tell us the absolute, unredacted truth. What we got was an absolute, bald-faced lie that fell apart with time and us leaning into our own investigation,” Danroy Henry said.
In the days after the DJ Henry’s death, the Pleasantville police union defended Hess, saying he opened fire only after DJ Henry ignored a hand signal to stop. Pleasantville Police Chief Anthony Chiarlitti said there was no racial bias in DJ Henry’s killing, calling it “inappropriate and irresponsible” to think so.
Brian Sokoloff, Hess’ attorney, has said his client was justified in shooting into DJ Henry’s vehicle.
“He was hit by a car. He was thrown onto the hood of the car. He was injured,” Sokoloff said, referring to Hess. “It was a car accident, with a car driven by a drunk driver.”
What has happened since DJ Henry’s death
The Henrys say they found out the truth in the days, months and years after DJ was fatally shot.
They sued Aaron Hess in 2011, which led to depositions with many of the people involved the night their son died. That same year Hess was named Officer of the Year by the Police Benevolent Association of the Pleasantville Police Department for his dignity and professionalism since the shooting and throughout his career.
Pleasantville police initially claimed that Henry drove aggressively toward both Hess and Mount Pleasant Officer Ronald Beckley. But during a deposition for the Henry family’s subsequent wrongful death lawsuit, Beckley gave a different account.
Beckley said he fired his own gun at Hess because when he saw the unfamiliar fellow cop on Henry’s car, he took him for “the aggressor.” He said he told his superiors that the night Henry was killed.
The Henrys have accepted a $6 million settlement in their wrongful death lawsuit against Pleasantville and Hess. They also have settled their lawsuit against another police department involved in the shooting and received an undisclosed amount of money, a $250,000 donation to the DJ Henry Dream Fund and a public apology.
Several months after the Henrys attended President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address as guests of U.S. Reps. Joe Kennedy and Stephen Lynch, the Department of Justice announced there would be no federal civil rights charges brought in the case.
Sokoloff has said the incident is a tragedy, but dismisses calls to reopen the investigation. “It seems to me that because of the George Floyd case, the Breonna Taylor Case, all these other cases, people are running around looking to nail a police officer to a wall — any police officer — and they’re reaching back 10 years.”
This year, DJ Henry’s death has received renewed attention. An online petition has now been signed by more than 358,000 people. A group of 10 well-known celebrities, including Rihanna and Jay-Z, asked Attorney General William Barr to reexamine and reopen DJ Henry’s case.
“We’d welcome a reexamination into our son’s case. All of the evidence is there, we just need someone with the courage to convict all those involved,” Angella Henry said.
Cody Shepard reports for The (Brockton, Mass.) Enterprise. Contributing: The Associated Press