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Dengrove Collection Writeup

Police Officers Charged in Death of Graffiti Artist Michael Stewart

Shortly before 3 a.m. on September 15, 1983, police arrested Michael Stewart in a 14th Street subway station for writing in felt-tip marker on the wall. Within an hour, officers brought him to Bellevue Hospital. Stewart had nopulse or blood pressure. He was revived but remained comatose until his death 13 days later.

Stewart was black. The cops who arrested him were white. Three officers—John Kostick, Henry Boerner, and Anthony Piscola—were charged with criminally negligent homicide, assault, and perjury, and three others—Susan Techky, Henry Hassler, and James Barry—with committing perjury before the investigating grand jury.

Chief Medical Examiner Elliot Gross concluded Stewart died of cardiac arrest and that neither bruising on Stewart’s face nor abrasions on his wrists were contributing injuries. A month later, Gross changed his mind in the final report and cited a spinal cord injury as cause of death. Two years later, Gross changed his mind again, and decided he had no opinion on how Stewart died.

But the Chief Medical Examiner of Massachusetts, who reviewed hospital records and the autopsy report, testified that Michael Stewart died of asphyxia as a result of force applied to his neck. A witness for the prosecution, who was studying at his dormitory window, said he saw an officer use a nightstick to put a chokehold on Stewart. The defense claimed Stewart drunkenly, violently resisted arrest and died of heart failure.

The all-white jury found the officers not guilty after seven days of deliberation.