A state grand jury has declined to file criminal charges against a white New Jersey state trooper who fatally shot a Black motorist from Poughkeepsie during a traffic stop on the Garden State Parkway two years ago, the state attorney general’s office said Tuesday.
Maurice Gordon’s death occurred two days before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis that sparked global protests of police use of force against Black people.
The 28-year-old Gordon, known as "Junior" to many locally, was from Jamaica and had been living in Poughkeepsie while studying chemistry at Dutchess Community College. In the weeks and months after his death, he was remembered by friends for his sense of humor, infectious smile and warm personality, despite an introverted nature.
State Police Sgt. Randall Wetzel stopped Gordon at about 6:15 a.m. on May 23, 2020, after Gordon was witnessed driving over 100 mph.
William O. Wagstaff III, an attorney representing Gordon’s family in a lawsuit filed against against Wetzel, State Police Col. Patrick Callahan and then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, said the grand jury's decision not to indict Wetzel "is yet another hindrance to the family's grieving process" but was "not a surprise."
"The way the New Jersey Attorney General's Office handled the careful curation and release of videos and information when Junior was first killed reflected what I believe was a predetermination that the State of New Jersey wanted Sgt. Wetzel exonerated," Wagstaff said Tuesday. "The family has never felt the presentation of the case to the Grand Jury would be on the level."
"Today's vote of no true bill is another reminder that police accountability still escapes Black people in New Jersey," he added.
Wagstaff argues in the lawsuit, which is pending in federal court, that race was a factor in Gordon’s death.
The suit notes he had an "unfortunate history of psychiatric difficulties," but no history of violent expression associated with those difficulties.
On Tuesday Wetzel's lawyers and the state attorney general's office declined to comment on the grand jury's decision.
The incident came at the end of a 28-hour stretch that began when Gordon left a friend’s Poughkeepsie home around 3:15 a.m. on May 22 and the friend, whose name was not released, called 911 minutes later.
It’s unclear why Gordon went to South Jersey on May 22. As an Uber driver, Wagstaff has noted it’s possible he could have had a fare.
In the hours leading up to the stop, Gordon was ticketed for speeding and an off-duty police officer and two other state troopers stopped to assist him at various locations after his car ran out of gas, according to the state attorney general’s office. At one point, a car passing by pulled over and gave Gordon a ride to a convenience store to get gas.
In video released by the attorney general’s office two weeks after Gordon’s death, Wetzel and Gordon can be heard discussing moving Gordon’s car further off the road, and Wetzel is seen guiding Gordon away from the road and to the back of the police car.
Gordon is seen in the video sitting in the back of the car without handcuffs, and Wetzel tells him he needs to pat him down. Wetzel also offered to give Gordon a ride and call a tow truck.
About 20 minutes after the beginning of the encounter, Gordon released his seat belt and got out of the police car. Wetzel was off camera but could be heard telling Gordon to return to the car. Gordon appeared to walk to the driver’s side of the vehicle in an attempt to get in.
“Get out of the car!” Wetzel yelled, before the men moved off-screen. Scuffling sounds could be heard, followed by gunshots. Wetzel used pepper spray and fired six times, according to the attorney general’s office.
Wetzel can be heard on the video telling a fellow trooper who arrived on the scene that Gordon, while handcuffed, tried to grab his gun. It wasn’t clear when the handcuffs were placed on Gordon.
Also released were audio recordings of a 911 call from the day before the shooting made by one of Gordon’s friends, who said Gordon had left his house in the middle of the night looking “really panicked.”
Matt Spillane contribute
This article originally appeared on Poughkeepsie Journal: Maurice Gordon: No police charges in fatal shooting of Poughkeepsie man