THE LOOP — The mother and brother of Aaron Harrison, who family members say was wrongfully shot and killed by police, took the stand in their civil case on Wednesday, describing how the 2007 death has hurt them.
The death of Harrison, 18, led to angry protests that included protestors hurling bottles, rocks and bricks at police and marching to the 11th District police station.
"It's hard to say what I miss most. I miss everything," said Harrison's teary-eyed mother, Annie Johnson. "I miss his hugging, laughing...I miss his existence."
She added that her son struggled with attention deficit disorder as a child.
Harrison's brother, Anton, called his older sibling "the life of the party."
About three months ago, a jury deadlocked on the civil case filed by Aaron Harrison's family.
Opening arguments kicked off Tuesday at the Daley Center, with jurors hearing about the death of Harrison, who was shot in the back and killed while being chased by police in his North Lawndale neighborhood on Aug. 6, 2007.
Police say Officer John Fitzgerald was in fear for his life after Harrison pulled out a gun during the chase and aimed it at Fitzgerald. Witnesses insist Harrison was unarmed, although his attorneys stopped short of claiming a gun was planted.
It's a "tale of two stories,” Jack Kennedy, an attorney for Harrison's family, told jurors. “It’s up to you to decide."
Investigators found no wrongdoing on Fitzgerald's part.
Police said Harrison, armed with a handgun, ignored orders to drop the weapon and pointed the loaded gun at Fitzgerald as he ran through an alley the 1100 block of South Mozart Street.
Attorneys representing the family, including James Montgomery — whose father founded the firm Cochran, Cherry, Givens, Smith & Montgomery with famed attorney, Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. in 2000 — suggested Tuesday that Harrison was shot not because he had a gun, but because he was making a mockery of the officer trying to catch him.
Without going so far as to say that police planted the gun beside Harrison’s dead body, co-counsel Kennedy accused the officers of a cover-up in “the unjustified killing of an unarmed teenager.”
Four witnesses, including two people who knew the teen personally and a 73-year-old landlord, testified Tuesday that Harrison didn’t have a gun and that there was no gun in the area around his dead body immediately after the shooting.
The officers, assigned to a special citywide drug and gang unit, were traveling west on Roosevelt Road in a two-car caravan, commonly referred to as a “wolf pack,” when they came upon a group of 15 to 20 people milling around outside a liquor store at Roosevelt's intersection with Francisco, attorneys said.
Fitzgerald, riding in the first car, radioed back to the second car to tell his fellow officers that he thought one of them might have a gun, James Ormond, an attorney defending the city and police, told the jury Tuesday.
When the cop caravan circled back and Fitzgerald got out of the squad car, Harrison allegedly took off running.
Fitzgerald ran after him through vacant lots until Harrison allegedly raised a “big, shiny” gun across his chest, pointing it at the officer, Ormond said.
“That’s when officer Fitzgerald has no choice but to fire the one shot,” Ormond said. “Officer Fitzgerald was totally justified … staring down the barrel of that gun.”
The bullet entered the left side of Harrison’s back, severed his spinal column and exited through his neck just below the right ear.
He died instantly in front of multiple witnesses at 1131 S. Mozart St., according to testimony given Tuesday.
“He was zigzagging through the alley running toward me, and the officer shot him in the back,” witness Devonne Reed said from the stand. “He was taunting the officer.”
It was a warm summer night on Chicago’s West Side and Reed, a friend of Harrison's, was hanging out on the front porch of a building. On the back porch, a birthday party was behind held.
Reed, who testified from Centralia Correctional Center, where he is serving a 15-year prison sentence for armed violence, said Harrison didn’t have a gun.