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His Last Words Were "Keith, Keith I'm Only 31"
by Quinten Wednesday, Oct. 06, 2004 at 5:02 AM (email address validated)

Nine years ago next week marks the 9th anniversary of the murder of Jonny Gammage by five Pittsburgh police officers. This story reminds us of what happened.

His last words were "Keith, Keith -- I'm only 31."

Beaten to death by 5 police officers in the Overbrook section of Pittsburgh, the case of Jonny Gammage divided Allegheny County and shocked people across the world. From the beginning race was a central issue. The five police officers implicated in Gammage's death were all white. Gammage was black. Although a racially-mixed coroner's jury unanimously voted to indict all five officers, the first time that a police officer was ever indicted in Allegheny County, the eventual criminal trials were by jurors imported from the whitest corners of the State. Outrage at the outcome of the case -- two mistrials and one not-guilty verdict -- caused the City of Pittsburgh to create the Citizen's Police Review Board. Years later, the echoes of the case still shape city race-relations and the lack of trust that many residents of Pittsburgh have for the police. Today, a look back at the case through the lense of one of the jurors on the coroner's jury, and an interview with Pete Shell of an anti-police brutality group that formed in reaction to the Gammage case.

Nine years ago next week, Jonny Gammage, a native of Syracuse and the cousin of Ray Seals, a football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was driving through the Overbrook section of Pittsburgh on Route 51 in his cousin's Jaguar. It was a little after midnight, and he was tired because he was getting a cold. Lt. Milton Mulholland testified that he began to follow Gammage at a distance of about 15 feet for more than a mile and a half, without his lights on. He then testifies that he noticed the brake lights flashing on as though Gammage were slowing down and picking up speed. Natural because of the steep grade of Route 51 and with a police officer tailgating him, but Lt. Mulholland decided to turn his lights on, and Gammage pulled over, perhaps thinking that the officer was finally going to pass him because he had received a call.

Instead, police officers from 2 other boroughs joined Mulholland, including John Vojtas, later to be implicated as the primary agressor in Gammage's death. While Mulholland was checking Gammage's license and registration, a confrontation occured that brought Gammage out of the car at Vojtas' gunpoint. Gammage, holding out his cell phone to Vojtas -- perhaps to confirm his story that he was the cousin and business partner of Ray Seals -- had it knocked out of his hand with the officer's flashlight and was forced to the ground with the help of two other officers who had by now responded, Albert and Henderson. Three officers - Henderson, Vojtas, and Mulholland -- testified Albert came in and started hitting Gammage in the neck, left and right side of the face, in the throat, and on his back with a collapsible baton. He hit him so many times the baton flew out of his hand and he had to stop to rest.

The officers continued to beat Gammage with their fists, the collapsible baton, and their flashlights, this while Gammage was handcuffed, immobilized with five men on top of him, one with his knee squarely on his back and another sitting on his legs. At one point, one of the officers left a bite mark in Gammage's rear. The eventual cause of Gammage's death was asphyxiation.

By the time that Gammage died, tens of police cars from all over Pittsburgh had already arrived at the scene. Not one officer intervened in the one-sided beating. A racially mixed six-member jury unanimously indicted all five of the police officers for the murder of Jonny Gammage.

The jury trials that would follow would end unhappily for many members of the Pittsburgh community and would outrage people all over the world. Only three officers were charged; two others made agreements that they would testify against the others. Two trials ended in mistrials. John Vojtas was acquitted by an all-white jury from the 99% white Lackawanna County, brought in by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court because of fears of jury prejudicing from the large amount of media coverage that surrounded the case.

After being acquitted, John Vojtas was promoted in the Brentwood Police Department. The Syracuse Post-Standard had this response:

The white residents of Brentwood, Pa., who repeatedly cheered the promotion of Brentwood Officer John Vojtas, despite his role in Syracusan Jonny Gammage's traffic-stop death on Oct. 12, 1995, have clearly drawn their battle lines.

They sent a message that it does not matter if a life has been ripped away from a family, a community and a nation of African-Americans and others who've watched the same distressing scenario play out time after time.

It does not matter if those paid to protect and serve have played a culpable role in a citizen's death over an alleged bad car light.

It only matters that a good ol' boy got off and, to boot, received a promotion after his acquittal on involuntary manslaughter charges.

And life is good in Brentwood again.

For audio of the reactions to the Vojtas decision, visit this website.

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Speaking of hate-filled Leslie Mollett Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007 at 1:14 PM
"racist, hate-filled, actions and ideologies" just wondering Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2007 at 1:19 PM
Over a Decade Later Disgusted by Racism Sunday, Feb. 25, 2007 at 12:49 PM
Garbage Stan Keys Friday, Oct. 20, 2006 at 6:40 AM
Hell Welcomes Pokorny cerebus Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2005 at 8:02 AM
racist asswipe revisited George K. Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2005 at 5:30 AM
racist asswipe paleskin Saturday, Dec. 24, 2005 at 10:46 AM
GOD is watching dabiness Saturday, Dec. 24, 2005 at 10:23 AM
Interview in MP3 Format Quinten Wednesday, Oct. 06, 2004 at 8:57 PM
Interview with Pete Shell Quinten Wednesday, Oct. 06, 2004 at 8:51 PM
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