By Jesse Duthrie
On April 14, 1997, a 22-year old African American man named Malik Jones was shot and killed by East Haven police officer Robert Flodquist after a high-speed traffic pursuit. Flodquist, a 12-year veteran of the force, claimed self- defense. According to his testimony and eyewitness reports, Flodquist and another police cruiser blocked Jones’s car at the intersection of John Murphy Drive and Grand Avenue in New Haven. As Flodquist approached Jones’s gray Cutlass Supreme with his weapon drawn, he shattered the driver’s side window and ordered Jones to turn off his vehicle and cease and desist. Jones put the car in reverse and attempted to back away. As he began his reverse motion, he turned the steering wheel over, spinning the car in Flodquist’s direction. Flodquist fired four shots into Jones’ chest, and Malik Jones died at the scene.
Henry C. Lee, one of the country’s foremost forensic scientists, took the lead in the crime scene investigation. Lee has worked as the forensic scientist on major national cases: the racially divisive O.J. Simpson murder trial, the mysterious JonBenét Ramsey murder investigation, the violent Washington D.C. Snipers case, the contentious re-investigation of the John F. Kennedy assassination.
By late September of 1997, State’s Attorney Michael Dearington made an official ruling on the shooting. After a thorough crime scene investigation, autopsy reports, and statements from six eyewitnesses, Dearington ruled that Flodquist’s actions were “reasonable and justified.” Dearington and the State’s Attorney’s office were able to collect enough evidence to prove that Jones repeatedly ignored Flodquist’s directives as Flodquist stood alongside his car. In a September 23, 1997 article by the New Haven Register, Dearington added more insight to the ruling, saying, “There was no evidence that excessive force was used.”
The same September 1997 New Haven Register article listed major pieces of forensic evidence to support Flodquist’s case: silver paint chips found on Flodquist’s uniform (indicating that Jones’s car did hit him at some point), glass particles in a 20-foot rectangular pattern on Grand Avenue (proving that Jones’s Cutlass Supreme was in motion as Flodquist fired his shots), proof that all shots were fired (at a distance of one to three feet and at a downward angle) while the car was moving; and evidence that the car was in reverse for six and half to eight seconds, leaving Flodquist little time to react. Other circumstantial evidence came to light that would help exonerate Flodquist. The lone passenger in Jones’s car, Samuel Cruz, admitted to police that Malik Jones had been smoking “ill” that same evening. “Ill,” the street name for marijuana soaked in phencyclidine (PCP) or embalming fluid, can cause a person’s behavior to be highly aggressive and erratic. On top of the effects of “ill,” Jones’s autopsy also showed a blood alcohol content level between 0.06% and 0.07%. No amount of hard evidence backing Flodquist’s actions could change the opinions of the majority of African Americans in East Haven and what they believed to be a direct instance of racially biased murder. In the months between Malik Jones’s death and the State’s Attorney’s ruling, Jones’s mother Emma had successfully rallied the Connecticut chapter of the NAACP, church officials, city alderman, and hundreds of town citizens to draw attention to the racial lines that had divided their town for years before the shooting took place.
For those who perceived Malik’s death as an archetype of racially bias policing, no amount of crime scene evidence could sway their rancor. To these accusers, the State’s Attorney’s decision represented a grave injustice of the law. After Dearington pronounced Flodquist innocent, Emma Jones publicized a louder, harsher voice than in the rallies she’d organized in the months preceding the ruling, deeming Dearington’s decision a “gross miscarriage of justice to her family and the entire state of Connecticut.”
One set of ears that heard her voice was then- Governor John G. Rowland. Just hours after State’s Attorney Dearington made his decision, Rowland sent a letter to Chief Court Administrator Aaron Ment asking for a grand jury probe. Rowland’s intervention stemmed from the internal process of State’s Attorney investigations—a process of the police policing themselves—and in this case, did nothing to satisfy the strife and grief felt by the Jones family and the growing group of citizens who supported their plight. Rowland himself admitted that the process was not a “perfect system.”
Following Rowland’s announcement of a federal probe into the death of Malik Jones, Emma began her long legislative battle of highs and lows.
In April of 1999, Emma Jones filed a wrongful- death lawsuit in federal court against Officer Flodquist, Officer Gary DePalma (the second officer with Flodquist at the scene of the crime), the East Haven Police Department, and the town of East Haven. She claimed excessive force, and a habit of East Haven police targeting blacks and Hispanics for federal jury awarded Emma Jones $2.5 million in punitive damages from the town of East Haven for civil rights violations, and for the failure to stop their police department from a pattern of racial profiling and using excessive force against minorities.
Punitive damages, opposed to compensatory damages (awards in civil suits to indemnify a person for particular loss as a result of unlawful conduct), are handed down in civil suits when the judge feels that compensatory are an inadequate remedy. Punitive damages are meant to punish the wrongdoer into paying fees beyond what compensatory damages would demand was ever found. Again, these are memories that blur in the heat of the moment, their details boiling down to the credibility of those who speak them, but it does sound familiar. It would take seven years until a scenario like this would be played out again, only this time Flodquist’s bullets would land.
A mishap occurred in the final ruling. The judge found the town of East Haven guilty. Not Robert Flodquist. And federal law states that municipalities are immune from punitive damages. The judge’s ruling had been a legal blunder; a decision that the defense eagerly awaited to appeal and an award that journalists and legal experts knew would not stick. So the $2.5 million that had been long fought for was stripped in appeals. Emma Jones would have to ask for her case to be reheard.
The case went back to federal court. Emma Jones won again, and was awarded a smaller but substantial compensatory award—$900,000. Like the first $2.5 million, the second award granted to Emma Jones would be held up in courts; appeals were imminent, although these appeals would be based not on judicial mishaps but on the ruling itself. But for that brief period it seemed like a victory. Rumors and talk of East Haven’s corrupt policing no longer warranted suspicion or a doubtful eye.
On August 1, 2012, the second appeal decision was handed down. The award would be reversed again. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Emma Jones did not provide sufficient evidence to show that the shooting of her son was the direct result of “deliberate indifference” to the rights of blacks and other people of color by East Haven police officers. Reported in an August 1, 2012 Hartford Courant article, an official at the court said the decision reflects “only [the court’s] view that Jones’s suit failed to present sufficient evidence to establish liability by the town of East Haven for the shooting by one of its police officers.” Emma Jones and her attorneys were able to show to the court that there had been instances of “reprehensible and at times illegal and unconstitutional conduct by individual officers,” but to establish municipal liability she needed to prove that misconduct was so widespread in East Haven that the town “was aware of it, condoned it, or at least tolerated it.”
The last move for Emma Jones would be to take her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On May 30, 2013, Emma Jones and her attorneys filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari (an official appeal to the Untied States Supreme Court). Inside the 20- page petition are explicit details of East Haven Police Department’s history of racial profiling.
The petition refers to instances of brutal treatment of African Americans in East Haven by unnamed EHPD officers, such as repeated references to African Americans as “niggers.” On page 5 of the Petition, the Writ of Certiorari discusses an incident involving a white man named Donald Jackman, who was told by East Haven officers that “if [he] were a nigger [he’d] be fucking dead.” The Writ goes on to state that the East Haven Police Department had a long-standing history of racial discrimination against African Americans, and that these complaints are warrant enough to file a lawsuit in conjunction with the civil rights case related to Malik Jones’s death.
The petition goes on to detail the moments after Jones was shot. Flodquist and his fellow officers laid motor vehicle stops. Though the federal probe was still underway, she needed to file her wrongful-death suit within the two-year period of when the actual death occurred.
Seven months after Emma Jones filed her wrongful-death suit, the federal jury probe that began in 1997 cleared Flodquist of criminal wrongdoing for a second time. According to U.S. Attorney Stephen A. Robinson, there was not enough evidence to prosecute Flodquist on civil rights violations. The U.S. Attorney’s office did conclude that Flodquist did not follow proper procedure when he fatally shot Jones; however, the failure to follow proper procedure was not enough to garner civil rights criminal charges.
It wasn’t until July 10, 2003, nearly four years after the ruling of the federal jury and a little over seven years after Malik Jones’s death, when the next major milestone occurred in the Jones’s plight.
During the trial, new testimony came to light that cast a nefarious shadow over Robert Flodquist. In 1990, Flodquist attempted to shoot an African-American man named Shane Gray. Gray was believed to be dead before the first civil suit began back in 1999, but was later found incarcerated for sale of controlled substances. According to Shane Gray’s testimony, Gray attempted to flee the scene of a crime and Flodquist struck him with his vehicle. Flodquist then fired his gun and missed. Eventually the police apprehended Gray. East Haven Police officials ignored his complaints about the shooting. Flodquist was exonerated for his actions by his captain without so much as interviewing Gray or taking note of his story. Flodquist told jurors during the first federal jury case that Gray had a gun, and that the gun was hidden by somebody in the crowd near the scene of the crime. Gray denied ever having a firearm, and no weapon Jones on his stomach, hands handcuffed behind his back, feet still inside the car, bleeding out until his death. The petition states that, “A jury could find that Flodquist and his two fellow officers were confident in their ability to get away with racist misconduct.”
The United States Supreme Court accepts 65 to 80 Petitions for Writ of Certiorari per year. In an average year, 10,000 Writs are filed. With less then a 0.8 percent chance of acceptance, it was a long shot for Emma Jones.
The United States Supreme Court denied Jones’s Writ of Petition Certiorari. Town officials in East Haven heralded the decision, aware of the amount of money their town would potentially save and the catharsis accomplished in the Supreme Court’s decision. In an October 7 New Haven Register article, East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. said in a fairly unsympathetic tone, “Malik Jones is done. I’m just happy for the taxpayers of East Haven. I’m glad it’s over.”
East Haven has been saved the repercussions of another lawsuit and the accompanying mess: legal bills the taxpayers end up paying; national and local press; the long road back to 1997, reliving a memory that most town officials would rather let lay dormant. But as the Supreme Court was throwing out Malik Jones’s case, a second notable case began involving East Haven Police Department: East Haven PD’s officers Dennis Spaulding and David Cari faced federal charges for violating the civil rights of Latinos in the same city as Robert Flodquist. The officers had been arrested after a four-year federal probe after allegations of EHPD racially biased policing. October 21, both officers were found guilty, and now face up to 20 years in prison. In an official statement released from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Spaulding and Cari were found guilty of “conspiring to violate and violating the civil rights of members of the East Haven community.” Their two counterparts, Jason Zullo and Sargent John Miller, got off light on plea deals and will face minimal to zero jail time.
If the past seventeen years have shown anything, it’s a malfunctioning police department, a division of opinion on what “racial profiling” includes, and the incapability of courts to arrive on a decision regarding this one isolated case. How will Malik Jones be remembered? As a martyr or a troublemaker? Given the trajectory of East Haven Police Department’s problems, it is entirely possible he may end up just another of many brought down by a broken system. For the sake of Emma Jones and those who fought to effect change in the town of East Haven and the state of Connecticut, let’s hope that Malik Jones’s name is not forgotten, nor the lessons we might learn left behind.