The other day, I sat in a courtroom and listened to a police officer describe what could have been his last moment of life.
It was fairly nondescript.
He was businesslike, seemingly relaxed, giving a simple recitation of facts.
Yet it was one of those events that could have only ended one of two ways – with him in a box, or in a witness chair. At a trial, or at a funeral.
The man who pulled the trigger sat at his 10 o’clock, diagonally across the little courtroom. When the officer was called, and strode into the room, the defendant lifted his head and stared right at him. It wasn’t a glare, but it was direct and intentional. His head tracked him and looked him in the face. The officer, a tall and solid man of about 30, never looked back. He just answered questions in practiced police phrases, and took repeated sips of water.
There had been a gray Chevy Impala connected to a menacing call from a few days before and at roll call he was told to be on the lookout. His shift started at 7 on Thursday night and was to run until quarter after 3 on Friday morning. A little after 8 there was a shots-fired call and he responded, but not directly to the scene. He did a sweep of the area, in an ad hoc rolling perimeter, looking for anybody who seemed like they might be fleeing.
He didn’t see anything.
For a while.
And then, as he drove east on Jay, coming right at him, there was a gray Chevy Impala.
It was quick and dark and he couldn’t make out the occupants to see if they matched the menacing suspect, but he did a snap u-turn just in case and the Impala raced away. The blue-and-white roared and the Impala cut a hard right, onto the little street where shots had been fired minutes before.
He made the right and turned just in time to see the Impala backing into a driveway, trying to hide. The squad car slammed to a halt in front of the driveway, blocking the Impala in, and in the spotlight he could see two front-seat occupants, both of whom seemed to be reaching for something on the floor.
He jumped from his car, announced that he was a policeman – in case the flashing light and the uniform and the marked car hadn’t given it away – and ordered them to stay in the car.
“The driver complied,” the officer said from the stand.
By then he was maybe 10 or 15 seconds into his crowded minute.
Theodore Roosevelt said he lived a crowded hour on San Juan Hill. Officer Joseph Ferrigno had his crowded minute in Dutchtown. It would prove to be a minute in which fate and courage and training, and the actions of another man, saw him through an uncertain strait.
The driver complied, but the passenger did not. He bailed.
He threw open his door and sprinted back, away from the street, through the narrow passage between two houses.
The evidence photo showed two homes, humble when they were built a hundred years ago, pressed up against a common property line, and a back yard opening in the back with the trunk of a tree visible.
The passenger had a head start, and he was running.
“I proceeded to give chase,” the officer on the witness stand said.
“I proceeded to give chase. I closed the distance.”
He got to within 10 feet.
“That’s when the suspect turned around and fired at me.”
At his 10 o’clock, at the defendant’s table, the man looked down. He didn’t look up again for a long time.
“I heard a loud bang. I saw the muzzle flash of the gun.”
It happened that fast. It was a dead sprint into the backyard, an exertion of two robust men, and then out of the blue the one wheels back and the gun roars.
I don’t know if the officer is married, or if he has children, or if his parents are still alive. But inasmuch as most people are known and loved, I presume that he is known and loved. Possibly somebody sends him off to work, and worries about him until he returns. Maybe he is close with some of his colleagues, and is a brother to them.
But whatever his situation in life is, whoever loves him or needs him, in that moment, all was almost lost. When it’s face first into the muzzle blast, and the shot is fired at you, it is very dire indeed.
“I returned fire,” the testimony continued.
He leapt to cover behind the tree, got a quick view with his flashlight and leaned out to fire four times, then moved back behind cover. As he did so, he was doing a mental assessment of his body and how it felt and how it was functioning.
“I was trying to feel if I had been hit or not.”
Two things happened then. Another officer ran up and stood behind the tree, and from the grass across the yard, a surrendering voice of a wounded man, “Alright, you got me. I’m done.”
The two officers moved out, the one on the stand locating the subject’s gun and positioning himself over it, his own gun trained on the subject, while the second officer placed the subject in handcuffs.
Those were the last few seconds of Joseph Ferrigno’s crowded minute.
On a routine patrol one Thursday night south of Lyell.
I heard that recounted the other day in a courtroom, by a man who knows better than any of us that he probably ought to be dead.