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Police dodge slay rap in 1983 death of graffiti artist Michael Stewart

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Michael Stewart, 25, an aspiring artist and model, fell into a coma after he was collared by police on Sept. 15, 1983.

It was after 2 a.m. when transit cop John Kostick descended into Manhattan’s First Ave. subway station.

On the Brooklyn-bound L platform, Kostick saw a tall, thin black man scrawl “RQS” on the wall in foot-high letters with a felt-tip marker.

The cop did his duty and collared the graffiti tagger on that morning 30 years ago today, Sept. 15, 1983. He later said the man was resigned, almost cordial.

He said, “Hey, man, you got me.”

Kostick cuffed the perp and walked him to the toll booth, where he took the man’s ID.

His name was Michael Stewart, 25, an aspiring artist and model who was on his way home to Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where he lived with his parents. He asked the cop not to call and wake them.

According to Kostick, Stewart’s disposition changed as they waited for the arrest transport van. He bolted upstairs, with the officer on his heels.

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Dr. Elliot Gross, the medical examiner, initially determined that Stewart died from a heart attack, unrelated to his handling by cops.

“At the top, Stewart fell face-forward on the ground,” Kostick would later say.

The cop held Stewart to the ground until the van arrived. Several officers loaded the perp inside and took him to the old District 4 transit police station at Union Square.

By then, the collar had gone bad.

Kostick said Stewart became “very violent” in the van. He tried to run again at Union Square, so he was hogtied — bound at the ankles and tethered hands-to-feet by an elastic strap.

Stewart’s wails drew two dozen Parsons School of Design students to their dorm windows.

“Oh my God, someone help me,” student Rebecca Reiss heard him bellow. “What did I do? What did I do?”

Transit police supervisors judged Stewart emotionally disturbed. They bundled him back into the van and took him to Bellevue Hospital, a mile away.

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Officer John Kostick cuffed Stewart at Manhattan’s First Ave. subway station. He was later indicted on charges of criminally negligent homicide in Stewart’s death, but beat the rap.

Stewart was comatose by the time he arrived at Bellevue at 3:22 a.m., an hour after he was caught tagging.

He lingered in a coma until he died on Sept. 28.

Coincidentally, a congressional subcommittee had held contentious hearings in New York that summer about police brutality against minorities. Stewart’s death after a routine graffiti arrest became Exhibit A.

Gotham was a different place 30 years ago.

More than 1,600 people were murdered in the city in 1983, triple the 2012 total. And things were about to get worse with a crack-driven crime crescendo that lasted a decade.

Deserved or not, the Transit Police Department had a reputation as a foundling cousin of the NYPD. It had not kept pace with the demographic evolution in New York. Seven in 10 transit cops were white in 1983, including all 11 who had a role in the Stewart case.

Dr. Elliot Gross, the city’s medical examiner, concluded after a seven-hour autopsy that Stewart was drunk and had died of a heart attack unrelated to his handling by cops.

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Officer Henry Boerner was also acquitted in the 1985 trial.
Stewart’s family and advocates were incensed.

But then Gross announced a do-over. A month later, he changed his mind and said “’physical injury to the spinal cord in the upper neck”’ had caused Stewart’s death.

He found swelling in Stewart’s brain, scrapes and bruises on his body (still visible two weeks after the arrest), and pinpoint bleeding in his eyes, often an indication of strangulation.

In spite of Gross’ waffling, a grand jury indicted Officers Kostick, Anthony Piscola and Henry Boerner for criminally negligent homicide, assault and perjury. Three other cops, Sgts. Henry Hassler and James Barry and Officer Susan Techky, were charged with perjury.

At trial in the summer of 1985, prosecutor John Fried framed the case as a “classic coverup” by cops. He called nearly 50 witnesses, half of them Parsons students, including Reiss. Some said they saw cops stomp Stewart. Others said they did not. None could identify any particular officer.

Medical testimony flummoxed the all-white jury of four men and eight women. Three doctors testified for the prosecution, and they disagreed on just about every detail.

Gross contradicted himself again. He said “blunt-force trauma,” hog-tying or intoxication might have played roles in Stewart’s death.

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He said he’d been wishy-washy because he feared his office would look bad on the high-profile case.

He was correct.

Sensing failure by the prosecution to prove its case, the defense team called no witnesses, though grand jury testimony by Kostick and others went into the trial record.

The jury acquitted the six cops on all charges. Louis Clayton Jones, an attorney for the Stewart family, called the trial “a farce.”

The MTA, overseer of transit police, considered but ultimately rejected any form of discipline against those six cops and five others.

Gross was canned in 1987. Three years later, the MTA paid Stewart’s family $1.7 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit.

In 1995, the transit police were folded into the NYPD.

Richard Emery, a civil rights attorney who observed the case for the New York Civil Liberties Union, called it “one of the most egregious tragedies of police abuse in the city.”

“The prevailing belief was that the cops got away with murder,” Emery told the Justice Story.

The outcome might be different today, he said.

Manhattan has thousands of surveillance cameras that might have provided evidence. And those Parsons students standing at their windows would no doubt have aimed cell phone cameras at the man screaming bloody murder on Union Square.
Article Credit: nydailynews.com

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