Was the fatal shooting of a college football player justified?
Produced by Alvin Patrick and Sarah Prior
[This story originally aired on Dec. 1, 2018.]
In the early morning hours of Oct. 17, 2010, Danroy “DJ” Henry, a Pace University football player, was shot dead by Pleasantville, N.Y., police officer Aaron Hess. That event triggered a seven-year journey for DJ’s family as they searched for answers.
“We’re not anti-police,” Danroy Henry, Sr., DJ’s father, tells CBS News special correspondent James Brown. “We’re just trying to understand what the facts tell us. Was it a justified shooting or was it not justified? Because if it wasn’t – it was murder.”
“People believed fervently that they knew what happened,” says Brian Sokoloff, who represents Hess. “And whenever you hear of a case like this, you can’t believe first impressions.”
DJ was out celebrating with his teammates at a bar after a homecoming game when other patrons got into a fight. Police say that DJ was parked in a fire lane in front of the bar and when he was asked to move, he allegedly sped towards Officer Hess, propelling him on the hood and forcing him to shoot DJ.
When it was over, DJ was dying in the street, and he and his friends were in handcuffs.
Hess maintained he shot into the car because he feared for his life and had no other option. DJ’s friends and witnesses denied he was driving fast and said he wasn’t trying to hit the officer.
Dan and Angella Henry had no idea it would be the last game they would watch their son, DJ, play.
Danroy “Dan” Henry Sr.: I think I made all the games. And homecoming we were all there … we had driven up and we were there to see the game.
DJ Henry was a junior playing football for Pace University.
Dan Henry: DJ …He was my shadow. He and I were together all the time.
Kyle Henry | DJ’s brother: My family’s — really close. Really close. Always been really close.
Angella Henry: We are like our own little universe, the five of us.
Amber Henry | DJ’s sister: Dad called him DJ. Mom would call him Danny.
Angella Henry: Danny. Always.
Dan Henry: He was the surrogate dad to his siblings … they looked up to him.
Amber Henry: I struggled with math as a high school student … He’d be the first one to sit down and be like, “OK, well, let’s figure it out.”
Angella Henry: He … was [pauses, emotional]. Oh, my gosh. A joy. … A pied piper in the neighborhood. All of the kids loved him …The biggest smile you’ve ever seen. And a very gentle spirit.
Angella Henry: We had driven up there the same day, watched the game, hung out, and then drove back home.
It was in the early morning of October 17, 2010.
Dan Henry: It was early. It was after the midnight hour.
The serenity of Dan and Angella Henry’s home in Easton, Massachusetts, was shattered with the unfathomable news that their eldest son DJ had been shot to death.
Dan Henry: I think they heard me scream that he died and came back down.
Angella Henry: I just remember laying on the floor crying and Kyle came over and stood over me and he just grabbed my shoulders and he said, “Mom … look at me, it’s gonna be OK.”
Kyle Henry: We just rushed outta the house. I don’t even remember if we locked anything up. I didn’t even have shoes on.
The drive from Easton to the Westchester County Medical Center in New York was over three hours.
Dan Henry: We didn’t want him there by himself, and so we prayed all the way.
James Brown: What was it like when you got to the hospital?
Angella Henry: As soon as we saw him, we all just screamed and cried. … Dan grabbed him and just held him and talked to him. … prayed with him … told him that we loved him.
Kyle Henry: … to see your brother, the person you grew up with … My whole life has been with him. … then you see this person lifeless … it was the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
Angella Henry: He had scrapes and scratches and cuts that he didn’t have … I just couldn’t believe it.
The Henrys’ daughter Amber got to the hospital later.
Amber Henry: So my mom came out of the doors. … She said … “I need to come take you to say goodbye.” …It was definitely a moment I knew, I knew right there that my life was gonna change.
The life the Henrys built was an American dream. Dan, an Ivy League graduate, enjoyed a successful career as a human resources executive.
His wife Angella made the choice to stay home with their three children.
Angella Henry We knew right away that we wanted to work as hard as we could to provide for our children a stable home and two parents.
Amber, a recent college graduate, is the youngest.
Amber Henry: We are so full of love. We just want the best for each and every one of us.
Kyle, an independent music artist, is in the middle.
Kyle Henry: We’ve always had each other’s backs. Always been very strong in each other’s lives.
Danny, a handsome student-athlete, was the oldest.
Angella Henry: When he played sports there was inevitably another Dan or Danny and so Dan started calling him DJ.
DJ embraced his family so much that it inspired him to get a tattoo.
Angella Henry: His first tattoo was “family first.”
Dan Henry: I looked down and saw what he did and said, “Oh that was — that was well played!”
Dan Henry: … he’s an amazing kid. …he wasn’t perfect, but man, was he a good guy. …with immense promise.
So what happened? How did the Henrys end up in a hospital crying over their 20-year old son’s body?
Dan Henry called the police investigator in charge and was floored by what he was told.
Dan Henry: He said DJ was trying to run over two police officers and that they had to shoot him to stop him.
The Henrys were dumbfounded. They knew DJ was out celebrating with friends after homecoming, but they could not imagine their son running down police with his car.
Dan Henry: … something had to have happened if that happened. What caused him to do something that’s so outside of his character? And Brandon affirmed for us that he didn’t.
Brandon Cox, DJ’s best friend, was also at the hospital.
Angella Henry: Brandon came in and sat down next to Danny’s bed … and just said, “He didn’t deserve this.”
From what the Henrys could piece together, DJ, Brandon and another friend were in DJ’s car waiting outside of a bar and police asked them to move out of a fire lane.
Dan Henry: Brandon … said they weren’t doing anything and that out of the clear blue, some guys flashes across with a gun, and starts shooting. And then before he knows it, he’s on the car and he’s shooting at them.
Brandon was sitting next to DJ in the car. He was shot in the arm but escaped serious injury.
Angella Henry: And we said, “Brandon, we need to know everything” … And Brandon said, “No, we were driving. We were leaving.” And he just kept saying, “He didn’t deserve this.”
The family wanted answers, and that morning headed to the Mount Pleasant Police station just hours after saying goodbye to DJ.
Dan Henry: …we wanted to look them in the eyes and just say, “You need to know a little bit about our son.”
What the Henrys did not know is that the Police Chief Louis Alagno had already conducted a press conference implicating DJ:
CHIEF LOUIS ALAGNO | MOUNT PLEASANT PD [press conference]: At about 1:20 a.m. this morning, Mt. Pleasant police received a call of a disturbance.
POLICE RADIO CALL: Respond to Finnegans … fight in progress.
Alagno said several police officers responded to a fight at Finnegan’s grill, a local bar about two miles from Pace University’s campus.
Reportedly, unruly patrons had spilled into the parking lot.
POLICE RADIO CALL: It looks like … it’s just a large gathering of the bar outside.
According to Alagno, when a policeman approached the car in the fire lane, the vehicle sped off and struck an officer:
CHIEF LOUIS ALAGNO [press conference]: For an unknown reason a vehicle that had been parked in a fire lane … near Finnegan’s Grill accelerated from the scene. A Village of Pleasantville officer attempted to stop that vehicle … that vehicle struck that officer; he was propelled onto the hood.
POLICE RADIO CALL: I’ve got an officer down — hit by a vehicle.
Alagno said the car continued to accelerate and the officer on the hood of the car shot the driver. That driver was DJ Henry.
CHIEF LOUIS ALAGNO [press conference]: I’m truly saddened by the events that occurred this evening. My condolences go out to the family of the young man that died in this event.
The Henrys didn’t want condolences; they wanted to know how Chief Alagno could make a public statement about their son without talking to them first.
James Brown: And you asked the question that they would conduct a press conference without even having talked with you, his family, and the response was?
Dan Henry: …that’s what the officers on the scene told me happened, basically. … And we pressed and said, “Look, we want truth. What we want is truth.”
That moment began a long, legal journey that would take the Henrys from a strip mall in New York all the way to the United States Department of Justice.
Dan Henry: We’re not anti-police. … We’re just trying to understand what the facts tell us. Was it a justified shooting or was it not justified? Because if it wasn’t — it was murder.
WHAT DJ’S FRIENDS SAW
WCBS RADIO [October 2010]: Police in Westchester in the community of Mount Pleasant fire at a speeding vehicle, killing the driver identified as a Pace University student.
Dan Henry: We were pushing hard against a very strong current in those early days because they’d beat us out there with a narrative.
And that narrative, as DJ’s parents saw it, was that police were blaming DJ for his own death.
The day after DJ was killed, Chief Louis Alagno held a second press conference and gave more details:
CHIEF LOUIS ALAGNO [press conference]: The Pleasantville officer that was involved was police officer Aaron Hess. … Police Officer Hess was the officer that ended up on the hood of the deceased’s vehicle … Officer Hess drew his pistol and fired it into the vehicle.
And he said DJ was accelerating toward a second officer, Ronald Beckley, who had also fired at his car.
CHIEF LOUIS ALAGNO [press conference]: Another officer, Mount Pleasant Officer Beckley, was also standing in the fire lane as this vehicle drove towards him. He also discharged his weapon at the vehicle.
Dan Henry: The effort clearly … was to villainize our son. It was to make him seem like a criminal thug that needed to be stopped.
But DJ’s friends say that is not how it happened.
Desmond Hinds: We weren’t doing anything wrong. We were in the Wild, Wild West. That’s what it felt like.
DJ’s teammate Desmond Hinds was in the car that night with DJ, Brandon, and two other friends who went to Finnegan’s.
Desmond Hinds: As long as the football team was together, that’s where we wanted to be, having fun.
After that fight broke out, the bartender called police, and soon six officers arrived on the scene. DJ and his passengers were not involved, and they headed to the doors.
Brandon Cox: It seemed a little bit early but the lights came on and bouncers were telling everybody to get out.
DJ’s friend, Brandon Cox.
Brandon Cox: They said, “It’s done, it’s done, so we’re leaving.”
DJ can be seen in security footage, just minutes before he was shot. DJ, Brandon and Desmond waited outside in DJ’s car for their two other friends. Brandon was in the front seat. As they were waiting, he remembers an officer tapping on the back window asking them to move.
Brandon Cox: He started to make a forward motion to move forward … That’s when DJ … starts to pull away. … He just pulled off slowly.
Brandon Cox: Where we were parked there was like there was a curve in the roadway. … As we come around that curve, I can see somebody running from in between those two cars with their gun raised.
Desmond Hinds: And I look and I see this stance [demonstrates as if holding a gun]. Two hands on something. I didn’t see the gun. Two hands.
James Brown: Pointed at?
Brandon Cox: Pointed at the vehicle.
Within seconds, that somebody — Officer Hess — was up on the hood, shooting.
Brandon Cox: I could feel something hit my arm. At that moment, I’m not sure what’s going on, not sure what it is, and I’m just ducking down to just try to get out of harm’s way.
Brandon and Desmond both say they never saw that second officer, Ronald Beckley, at all.
Desmond Hinds: I didn’t hear anything. It was like everything was silent. But I just saw bullet holes after bullet holes. There was three or four total.
At least one bullet hit the seat next to Desmond. Brandon had that graze wound to the arm. And DJ was shot twice — through his lungs and his heart.
Brandon Cox: DJ goes, “They shot me, they shot me …”
Desmond Hinds: And then he just made this moan, this moan that I will never forget.
DJ’s car crashed into a parked cruiser and stalled to a stop a little further down the road. Two officers took DJ out, handcuffed him and laid him on the ground. Desmond remembers being pulled out by yet another officer.
Desmond Hinds: And he slammed me on the ground. …And I go, “Officer, we did absolutely nothing wrong.” And he had a gun and he pointed it to the back of my head. He said, “Shut the f— up.” And at that point, I thought I was going to die.
Daniel Parker was friends with Desmond and DJ from the football team.
Daniel Parker: I was asking everyone, I’m like, “What happened? What happened?” And no one said anything. Everyone was just staring.
Daniel came out of Finnegan’s shortly after hearing a disturbance outside. Cellphone video shot by a fellow student captured that scene. Daniel spotted Desmond on the sidewalk, also in handcuffs.
Daniel Parker: I was like, “Desmond, are you OK?” And he was saying, “They shot DJ.”
Dash cam video from a cruiser that pulled in after the shooting shows Officer Hess on the ground. Behind him is DJ, lying in the road.
Daniel Parker: I saw that no one was by him. And I was looking and I was like, “You gotta be kidding me, what’s happening right now? Why is no one helping him?”
The first person to try and revive DJ was a woman at the scene — a civilian.
Daniel Parker: I saw her struggling to try to give him compressions and. … I was like, “Hey, that’s my teammate. Can I go help him?”
Daniel Parker: I said, “I’m CPR certified. Can I help him?” He was just like, “Get the f— back.”
Daniel Parker: And his eyes was open and I saw blood in his mouth and that’s the moment when I was like, “Y’all f—— killed him.”
Daniel says after saying that he was also thrown to the ground and handcuffed. Ten long minutes had elapsed from that first call about the shooting before DJ was finally hooked up to a defibrillator.
In the days after losing their eldest son, Dan and Angella Henry had to confront more than just their grief. They were facing two very different versions of events: one from the police and another from DJ’s friends.
Dan Henry: So we immediately had a conflict.
Dan Henry: Clearly we knew we needed counsel, but I needed a really good local attorney who would push hard to get at — truth.
The Henrys hired Michael Sussman, a legendary civil rights attorney from New York.
Michael Sussman: I remember in that first meeting Danroy looking at me and saying to me, “I don’t wanna make this about race. … I don’t want that to be the narrative. … I wanna understand the details of why it happened.
Officer Hess, his knee badly injured, was also taken to the hospital that night. And soon, he too, had a lawyer of his own.
Brian Sokoloff | Hess’s attorney: He doesn’t see himself as some kind of hero. … Aaron Hess is a victim.
AARON HESS TELLS HIS STORY
In the months after DJ’s death, as his family grieved, the Westchester District Attorney’s Office began an investigation, standard procedure at the time. In January 2011, they convened a grand jury to see if Officer Hess should be charged with any crime. DJ’s father, Danroy, was called to testify.
Dan Henry: The only question I was asked, two weeks before the grand jury wrapped up was did I know that DJ drank occasionally? That’s it.
A month later, Mr. Henry got a call: Aaron Hess was not indicted — on any charge.
Dan Henry: The DA’s office in Westchester County executed a sham.
James Brown: Pretty strong words.
Dan Henry: Yeah, that’s what they did, and if I could think of a stronger word, I’d use it.
Michael Sussman: The gentleman was not charged with anything. Criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter, murder — anything! And there should have been a charge, and there should have been a criminal trial. … The Henrys should have had, if you will, the satisfaction — not that it’s much satisfaction — of believing that their son’s life had that much value.
Hours after the grand jury decision, after Sussman’s repeated urging, the U.S. Department of Justice began a separate investigation looking into a possible civil rights violation — a federal crime. Weeks later, Hess’s union named him officer of the year. They said afterward the award was not meant to be public.
Angella Henry: They wanted to do that privately to boost Aaron Hess’s morale.
James Brown: To boost the officer’s morale?
Dan Henry: Because he had been through a lot. Because he had been through a lot.
While the Department of Justice was looking into the case, the Henrys filed wrongful death suits against Aaron Hess, the Village of Pleasantville, where Hess worked, and the town of Mount Pleasant, where DJ was shot.
In August 2012, nearly two years after DJ’s death, Hess came to the U.S. District Courthouse in Westchester for a deposition in the wrongful death cases:
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: Were you the first officer on the scene?
AARON HESS: Yes.
With their attorney Michael Sussman asking questions, Dan and Angella Henry were there.
Dan Henry: It was really, really important to us to be in the room. … We wanted to look in the eye of the guy that shot our son. We wanted to hear him tell us why, to see his face, to have him look us in the eye, to see Danny when he looked us in the eyes.
AARON HESS [deposition]: That night specifically was a bad night. I only reacted to what I thought, that I was going to be killed.
Angella Henry: Originally I was worried that I was gonna go in there and be just filled with anger but … I saw him and I just, I didn’t feel anything for him.
At the time DJ was killed in 2010, Aaron Hess was 33 years old, married and expecting twins. He had served four years in the Marines and had been a police officer since 2000 — first in New York City and later for his hometown of Pleasantville, New York.
Brian Sokoloff represents Aaron Hess.
Brian Sokoloff: That was Aaron Hess. Well liked. … Up until Oct. 17, 2010, he had never fired his weapon in the line of duty.
Hess arrived at Finnegan’s shortly after the call went out about the fight. When that officer tapped on DJ’s window, Hess says he was standing in the parking lot, about 30 feet away.
Brian Sokoloff: Aaron Hess, who’s around the bend, observes three things happen simultaneously. A, he hears an engine rev. B, he hears an officer yell, “Stop that car,” or, “Stop that vehicle.” And he sees an officer get turned off balance.
James Brown: Turned off balance, suggesting that?
Brian Sokoloff: Suggesting that something was amiss
Hess says that’s why he stepped across the road, to face DJ’s car — as it drove toward him:
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: Could you determine its rate of speed?
AARON HESS: Fast.
Brian Sokoloff: He puts up his hand and yells, “Stop. Stop.” The car doesn’t stop. He draws his weapon.
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: Why didn’t you move out of the way of the vehicle?
AARON HESS: Because I thought the vehicle was going to stop.
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: Why did you believe that?
AARON HESS: I believed it was going to stop because every other vehicle I’ve asked to stop in my career have stopped.
AARON HESS: As the vehicle was coming towards me, I lunged forward as it hit my legs. At that time as I was on the hood, the engine revved up again and seemingly, it seemed to me that was trying to get thrown off the vehicle. At that time is when I fired my weapon.
As he was shooting, Hess says, he could not see anyone inside the car:
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: Who did you aim at?
AARON HESS: The center mass of the driver.
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: So you saw the driver?
AARON HESS: I saw a silhouette. I didn’t physically see a driver.
It wasn’t until they were both lying in the road, Hess says, that he first saw DJ:
AARON HESS: The first time I observed the driver he was face down and handcuffed.
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: So you didn’t see him being cuffed?
AARON HESS: No.
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: Could you tell whether he was alive?
AARON HESS: No [becomes emotional].
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: Could you see whether he was breathing?
AARON HESS: No.
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: Now what were you doing at that point?
AARON HESS: Lying on the ground as well [wipes his eyes].
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: Was anyone tending to you at that point?
AARON HESS: [doesn’t answer; cries]
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: Do you want to take a break?
AARON HESS: Just give me a second [cries].
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: Sure, take your time.
Brian Sokoloff: I’d like somebody to tell me what other alternative Aaron Hess had on the hood of a moving vehicle other than trying to save his own life or closing his eyes and saying his prayers.
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: Did you hear any comments or remarks about his status on the scene?
AARON HESS: Yes.
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: What did you hear?
AARON HESS: I heard someone say, he’s dead.
Aaron Hess did not return to work after the shooting. He was on paid medical leave for two years, then retired with disability for his knee injury at the scene.
Then, a few weeks after Hess was first deposed, the Henrys found support from a very surprising source — that second officer whom Chief Alagno had said had also fired at DJ’s car, Ronald Beckley.
Michael Sussman: He was willing to go against the script to try to stand up for what was true.
NEW FACTS REVEALED
The Henrys’ lawyer Michael Sussman is determined to keep DJ Henry’s memory alive in the driveway of his home.
James Brown: Why do you keep this car?
Michael Sussman: The car is a tangible representation of what happened. … and when you see the bullet holes and you see the situation with the axle of the car here and the wheel, you have a very clear, constant reminder of what happened. And I think that’s very important to the truth-telling process.
That truth, says Sussman, would come out during the wrongful death suits — in the testimony of one brave police officer.
James Brown: Officer Ron Beckley. Who is he?
Michael Sussman: He’s an American hero.
Ronald Beckley directly refuted the official version put out by his own department.
Michael Sussman: In fact, the police chief’s version was that DJ Henry was threatening Beckley, which Beckley disavowed and said, “This is not what happened.”
According to sworn testimony in those wrongful death suits, Mount Pleasant police officer Ronald Beckley arrived on the scene that night and fired his weapon — for the first time in his 30-year career — at Aaron Hess.
Michael Sussman: He sees a person, as he described it, in dark clothing, jumping on a vehicle, and he takes out his weapon, and he fires a shot because he sees the person jumping on the vehicle as the aggressor, and believes that that person is shooting and endangering other people, and he has to try to stop him.
Evidence photos from the police shooting of Danroy “DJ” Henry Jr.
Evidence from the scene of Pace University student DJ Henry’s fatal encounter with Officer Aaron Hess in Mount Pleasant, N.Y.
Beckley did not realize that Hess was a fellow officer. Within hours of the incident, Beckley reported his account to his superiors. But the official version from Chief Louis Alagno misrepresented Beckley’s version, leaving the impression that Beckley was shooting at DJ Henry:
CHIEF LOUIS ALAGNO: [second press conference]: Another officer, Mt. Pleasant officer Beckley, was also standing in the fire lane as the vehicle drove towards him. He also discharged his weapon at the vehicle.
Michael Sussman: He was willing to go against the script to try to stand up for what was true.
Angella Henry: When Ronald Beckley did that, it was an answer to prayer.
Aaron Hess’ lawyer Brian Sokoloff says Beckley is no hero and that he broke department rules.
Brian Sokoloff: … officers are forbidden from firing at a moving vehicle. … Instead of saying he was firing at the moving vehicle, which is what he hit, he then says, “I was firing at Aaron Hess.”
Michael Sussman: Mr. Beckley didn’t lie. Mr. Beckley showed tremendous courage both at the scene and afterwards because … the blue code of silence does exist. … And Beckley knew in a certain sense that his career was over.
Ronald Beckley retired three months after DJ Henry’s death. He was denied a full disability pension.
Michael Sussman: The person who apologized to the Henrys, the person who cried with the Henrys was Officer Ronald Beckley, who said to them in my presence, “I wish I could’ve stopped this.” And broke down.
And then there is the question of how fast DJ Henry was driving. Michael Sussman gave “48 Hours” video of a test conducted by Westchester County police. In it, DJ’s car is shown accelerating to where Aaron Hess was standing. But DJ’s friends made it clear that he was driving slowly.
Desmond Hinds: I would say maybe 15. Ten to 15 miles-per-hour.
James Brown: Nothing reckless?
Desmond Hinds: Nothing reckless.
James Brown: Nothing dangerous?
Desmond Hinds: No.
James Brown: Not endangering anybody? You saw no pedestrians at all?
Brandon Cox: Nope. There were no pedestrians in the way, there was nothing blocking our path.
Michael Sussman: Initially what was told to me by the D.A.’s Office … was that there were a group of civilians who were crossing the path in the parking lot … and that the thought was he had to stop this car from running over those civilians. … And when we started pulling it apart, no one could ever identify these civilians, where they were, how Hess knew anything about them. There was no justification. It made no sense.
James Brown Did he, Officer Hess not have the option, the alternative of getting out of the way?
Brian Sokoloff: No, not at the time that he felt his life was in danger.
James Brown: So … No room to maneuver?
Brian Sokoloff: Not once he felt his life was in danger.
But Michael Sussman says the security video from the parking lot that night shows the brake lights of DJ Henry’s car as he was nearing Aaron Hess. He was slowing down.
Michael Sussman: I don’t have to rely on a million eyewitnesses. I have the video showing the slow down. I have the bullet holes.
Michael Sussman: DJ was every young man. DJ was not doing anything that was out of character, out of ordinary. He just wasn’t.
But just after DJ’s death, a toxicology report was leaked to the press that showed his blood alcohol level at .13. That means DJ would have been impaired that night. The Henrys’ lawyer disputes that.
Michael Sussman: The bar owner, who we spoke to, and all the other people we spoke to about DJ in that bar, said he had nothing to drink in the bar.
Brandon Cox: I did not see him have one drink at Finnegan’s.
James Brown: The entire evening that you were there?
Brandon Cox: The entire evening that I was there.
According to DJ’S friends, he did have one drink earlier in the evening back at the dorm.
Desmond Hinds: That night, I witnessed him having one drink.
James Brown: That’s it?
Desmond Hines: That was it.
In a video from the bar that night, DJ does not appear to be impaired.
Michael Sussman: I didn’t see him wobbly, I didn’t see him behaving in any kind of aberrant or unusual way whatsoever.
Brian Sokoloff insists the toxicology report proves that DJ was breaking the law and had a reason for trying to leave the parking lot quickly.
Brian Sokoloff: He did have a fake ID. He was intoxicated … We produced a report by an eminent toxicologist … there’s no other evidence on this, there’s been no other report, no other expert contradicts this …
Michael Sussman: For those who say DJ Henry was drunk, OK, let me make something very clear. No officer at that scene had any knowledge of DJ’s drinking. … So he wasn’t acting like he was drunk if he was drunk, and we have no real reason to believe he was. … It’s that simple.
Brian Sokoloff: I want to make this clear, we are not looking to demonize Danroy Henry, who tragically lost his life that night.
Michael Sussman: DJ was devalued. It’s the simplest way to put it. He was some kind of common criminal who was handcuffed, thrown to the gutter.
Through their pain, as the wrongful death suits dragged on, the Henrys were still waiting to see if the Justice Department would bring criminal charges in their son’s case.
Dan Henry: We just wanted to know if he was justified in taking our son’s life.
CLEARING DJ’S NAME
By 2015, it had been four years since the justice department began its investigation. The Henrys’ hopes were with then U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
Dan Henry: And he said look, I’m not afraid to prosecute these things, I’ll take them on. You should know I’m not afraid to do it. …So we were hopeful.
But they were warned that it wouldn’t be easy.
Michael Sussman: He said to us that the standard for prosecution was a high standard known as willfulness. There had to be a willful violation of civil rights.
MICHAEL SUSSMAN: So you saw the driver?
AARON HESS: I saw the silhouette.
Proving willfulness would be hard because Aaron Hess said he could only see a silhouette when he made the choice to shoot DJ Henry from point-blank range.
Brian Sokoloff: Aaron Hess could not see into the car. … He did not know the race, the gender, the age of anybody in the car.
James Brown: Do you think that the events of Oct. 17, 2010, would have unfolded differently if the occupants of the car were white?
Brian Sokoloff: Absolutely not.
The Henrys did not get the result they sought.
Dan Henry: They chose not to pursue federal civil rights charges. ….
The U.S. Attorney found that Aaron Hess had to make a split-second decision and the law allows latitude for an officer’s judgment.
Despondent after exhausting all criminal options, in 2016, the Henrys decided to settle their wrongful death suit with the Village Of Pleasantville and Aaron Hess. The Village paid $6 million.
Dan Henry: It’s in a trust. We won’t touch it. It’s blood money to us and —
James Brown: Blood money.
Angella Henry: They want you to put a dollar amount on your child’s life. How can you do that? … There is no appropriate amount.
In 2017, the Henrys also settled their wrongful death suit with the town of Mount Pleasant for an undisclosed amount. But what they got was more valuable to them: a public apology.
Angella Henry: They wanted to apologize in private, but we felt that they mischaracterized our son in public so the apology should be made public. … knowing that even in his death, they continued to bash his name and say such negative things is just adding salt to the wound.
The town released a statement, which read in part:
The town regrets any statement made on its behalf in the immediate aftermath of the incident … and … regrets the misimpression of DJ Henry these statements may have caused.
Amber Henry: If it were up to me, I wouldn’t even want them to say anything. They’ve said enough. … By what they’ve done, they’ve said enough.
But something big was achieved. Seven long years after the tragic death of their promising young son, the Henrys cleared Danroy Henry Jr.’s name.
Angella Henry: It was important because we knew who our son was and is.
James Brown: Do you consider that public apology an admission of guilt?
Dan Henry: Yes. That’s how we took it. I think in the public apology, they say it’s not, but that’s how we took it.
But the fact remains that no criminal charges were brought in DJ Henry’s case. Today Aaron Hess is employed in private security.
James Brown: When you do think about Officer Hess, what are your thoughts?
Angella Henry: I’m praying that at some moment in his life, he will fall to his knees and ask for forgiveness for what he did. And I pray that he never has to deal with it with his children.
Dan Henry: I try not to think about him. I try not to.
Through their sorrow, the Henrys have found a way to honor their son’s memory. In 2011, they started a charity called the DJ Henry Dream Fund.
Angella Henry: The foundation was … a way to honor our son’s love of fitness and sports.
The fund sponsors children in need from New England to attend summer camps and programs. So far, it has given away over half a million dollars to deserving kids.
Dan Henry: What moves me the most is when kids that come and tell their stories say thank you to Danny. That’s powerful.
DJ Henry’s Life was powerful. Childhood friend Brandon Cox wears a wrist band.
Brandon Cox: It says, “This is to the memory of Danroy Henry.” …No matter what I’m going to remember him. He’s a part of me forever.
Today, the Henrys spend a lot of time on Martha’s Vineyard. They came here as a family when DJ was alive; now they keep him alive in their hearts with a memorial bench that overlooks the ocean.
James Brown: What do you want people to remember about DJ, about Danny?
Dan Henry: I want them to remember his life, not his death. I want them to remember the giving, kind, nurturing, loving spirit that he is.
Kyle Henry: We should know that he would’ve done great things if he was here, destined for great things. Amazing person that this world lost.
Amber Henry: Danny would walk around the house and say … “I have to travel. I don’t have the time.” You know, “I have to do this, I don’t have the time.” We’d look at him and say, “you have all the time, you have your whole life.” … In his mind I think he knew maybe he wasn’t supposed to be here on this earth in a physical form for very long. That he was maybe supposed to help in a different way.
Angella Henry: I know that there’s more. I just know at the end of the day, I’ll get to be with him again.
Chief Luis Alagno retired in 2013.
In 2015 New York State law changed. Police shootings of unarmed civilians are now automatically investigated by a special prosecutor.