The Hartford Courant
The attorney for family members of Anthony “Chulo” Vega Cruz, killed last April by a Wethersfield police officer, and civil rights activists on Thursday questioned why Hartford State’s Attorney Gail Hardy released her report on the deadly shooting during the coronavirus pandemic which has halted gatherings and public meetings.
Hardy’s report, released Wednesday, nearly 11 months after she was assigned the investigation, concluded that Wethersfield police Officer Layau Eulizier Jr.’s fatal shooting of Vega Cruz, 18, was justified. Hardy said Eulizier believed that the car Vega Cruz was driving was about to hit him and that his life was in danger.
Police said Vega Cruz drove at Eulizier after fleeing a traffic stop and leading police on a brief chase on the Silas Deane Highway on April 20, 2019.
Hardy’s report said Eulizier acted reasonably and within the law. Activists have said the officer’s actions were not justified and said Eulizier should be charged with murder.
“The timing of the report is disturbing, no doubt about that, and should be examined,” Attorney Michael Jefferson, who is representing the Vega Cruz family, said. He said the family had been told in late summer or early fall that the report would be done in 30 days. The delays continued, with Hardy routinely missing deadlines she provided the family, Jefferson said.
“As far as we are concerned, we wanted it out much sooner than she did. It’s quite convenient for Gail Hardy to release the report at this time,” Jefferson said. “It should have been out sooner.”
Jefferson said the family takes substantial issue with the report, and he said Hardy did not meet with them to discuss it.
With people focused on their health and safety during the coronavirus outbreak and limiting contact outside their homes, some believe the report’s release during the pandemic was a calculated move.
“I think that it was strategic in why she did it. Before, it took her 10 years to do a report, now she’s getting this report done,” said Scot X. Esdaile, the president of the Connecticut chapter of the NAACP, speaking to the release of the report during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I don’t trust her.”
Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo, speaking for the Division of Criminal Justice, said the report was released as soon as it was completed.
“The purpose of the report was to determine if the use of force by a police officer was justified under state law with no intent to impede First Amendment rights to protest,” Colangelo said. “The report was released when it was completed and was first provided to representatives of the family and the police officers involved in the incident, who deserved to know the conclusions of this investigation in as timely a fashion as possible.”
Following reports in the Courant in October, Colangelo’s predecessor, Kevin T. Kane, at the direction of the head of the state Criminal Justice Commission, launched an investigation into Hardy’s yearslong delays in issuing mandated reports on deadly police shootings.
Courant reporting revealed that Hardy left open five investigations between March 2008 and April 2019 — the latter being the death of Vega Cruz. Hardy was required by law to issuing rulings on whether the officers were justified in killings and if the Division of Criminal Justice would pursue criminal charges.
Kane determined that the probe into Vega Cruz’s death was not “untimely,” but offered no explanation as to why the other investigations for deadly use of force from March 2008 to July 2012 had not been completed. Hardy completed the reports in late December.
The ACLU of Connecticut, which has criticized how state’s attorneys handle police use-of-force investigations, equally questioned the timing of the report’s release.
“It’s somewhat unbelievable how this would land with what the community, the family and people are dealing with currently in a public health emergency,” said Executive Director David McGuire. “What it did, regardless of their intent, is put people in the position of deciding between their health and speaking out publicly against an injustice.”
The killing of Vega Cruz led to a series of vigils and protests in which scores gathered outside the Wethersfield Police Department to call for officials to fire Eulizier and for Hardy to charge him with the killing.
Bishop John Selders, the co-founder of the social justice and civil rights group Moral Monday CT, called the decision to clear Eulizier an injustice. Selders and his group were among the people protesting the shooting and calling for charges against the officer.
“[I]n the midst of the uncertainty we are living in facing this global pandemic and its local impact, releasing this report now is suspect, questionable and demonstrates very little care,” Selders said in a statement.
Like Esdaile and Selders, local leadership of the Hartford Branch of the NAACP were critical of the report, which they said offers no justice.
“The ruling by Ms. Hardy is a travesty of justice and we refuse to accept her findings that the officer was justified in use of deadly force,” they said in a statement.
When confronted last fall about the long delays in deadly police use-of-force investigations, Hardy said she was working on the Vega Cruz report and had received the state police detectives’ investigative materials on Aug. 20. The report was released nearly seven months after state police turned over the investigation.
Kane, who was asked to defer his retirement to investigate Hardy’s lapses in releasing reports, recommended the Criminal Justice Commission, which oversees prosecutors, to bring Hardy in to discuss the delays in filing reports and consider punishment.
The commission, which has recently handled a number of high-profile appointments, has not discussed the matter since December, but plans to in the future.
McGuire said how Hardy has addressed police shooting investigations has raised doubts on how she does her job.
“The way State’s Attorney Hardy has handled the cases on her docket for sometimes over a decade and the way she released this report calls into serious question the fitness for her position,” McGuire said.
Hardy, who has been Hartford’s top prosecutor since 2007, faces a challenging reappointment in July.
Jefferson said he and Vega Cruz’s family plan to make their voices heard when she goes up for reappointment.
Esdaile vowed that his organization and others would fight Hardy’s effort to seek another term amid concerns that she will not hold law enforcement accountable.
“We are going to be striving to mobilize to get her out of there,” Esdaile said. “We don’t think there is going to be any justice for the people while she is in there.”
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