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Les Miserables

By Kathy Y. Wilson · September 20th, 2001 · Your Negro Tour Guide
"I don't know what happened. It just went off. It just went off."
-- Officer Stephen Roach after shooting Timothy Thomas

One patient photographer waited for the right angle, for just the right shot. Finally, he maneuvered, hunched his shoulders and shot.

Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach, heretofore with his broad back and the rear of his shining bald head to the churchlike pews of the gallery in Judge Ralph Winkler's courtroom, turned to face us at 8:52 on the trial's second morning.

And the camera shutters of the small gaggle of photographers clacked and snapped open, sounding more like a B&O freight train whizzing through town or like fat dropping into hot grease.

Roach looked positively miserable. He kept his hands in his suit pockets. He held his shoulders square. His jaw was tight, as was his grin, which never bared any teeth.

By genetics, his bushy eyebrows hid and hooded his eyes, acting like mini-cliffs and making caves of his eyes.

I couldn't see them clearly. I'm not so sure I really wanted to, considering what those eyes have seen -- the past and future being what they are.

Judge Winkler's court was surprisingly empty for such a sensational trial. I expected an impassible hallway as I rounded the corner to Courtroom 495. There was only a serious-looking bailiff and two photographers chatting each other up.

After all, Roach is on trial not so much for his life but for all of ours. Officially he's charged with negligent homicide and obstructing official business in the April 7 shooting death of Timothy Thomas.

Unofficially in the streets, he's charged with being the straw that broke the camel's back. On this second day, Roach brought along a strong showing of extended family members.

Roach's family stood shoulder-to-shoulder, seemingly to block the photographers' eye view. Winkler officiated the proceedings with a robotic, deadpan, monotone efficiency.

Officer Robert Kidd Jr. was the prosecution's first witness of the day. Kidd gave a detailed and unflinching account of the radio traffic and foot chase leading to the Thomas shooting.

"I heard Officer Roach, I believe, yelling a verbal command to get the suspect's attention," Kidd said of his approach to Republic Street. "I decided to follow Officer Roach down the breezeway. After the verbal command I heard a shot fired immediately after ... no more than two seconds."

Kidd was the third officer on the scene.

"When I came down the breezeway, I observed Officer Roach and Officer (Chris) Schroder standing over Mr. Thomas proceeding to handcuff him," Kidd said. "At that time, I didn't know he had been struck."

Kidd was asked about Thomas' "weapon." There was none.

"I remember doing the weapon pat down," Kidd said. "Officer Schroeder took Officer Roach away, I believe, to comfort Officer Roach. Once they walked away from Mr. Thomas, Officer Schroeder kept asking, 'Steve, are you alright? Steve, are you alright?'

"Officer Roach didn't respond, except to say, 'I don't know what happened. It just went off. It just went off.' "

The testimony turned technical, to the lighting on Republic Street, Kidd's location during the foot chase and whether his finger was on the trigger of his weapon. (It wasn't.)

I tried to get emotionally caught up in Roach's family sitting in front of me. I tried to catch some rhythm of what must it be like, sitting virtually helpless, as your boy's career and, more importantly, character is publicly deconstructed and put on trial.

But there was nothing. Just stiffness, stoicism, duty, misery.

And I think that's because, for Roach, there's really nothing at stake. His life doesn't hang in the balance. Both charges are misdemeanors and, if convicted of both, the most he could receive is nine months in jail. If acquitted, he could return to street duty.

He could be labeled ill-trained, a racist, trigger-happy or all three. In some circles, he's already been tagged with these monikers. So for Roach, his family and well-wishers, the trial comes down to little more than a formality, due process and even a temporary inconvenience.

For the rest of us, whether we cop to it or not, this trial is like a tank of helium standing at the ready. It will either inflate us, making us again big to the point of popping -- or it'll merely be a reminder of what our exploded selves can look like and where we can go to get such tainted air.

And should we pop open again like so many Jiffy-Pops, will we stand before our judge with the refrain "It just went off. It just went off" falling from our mouths?

Perhaps so. Misery does love company.



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