TDATE: J Thursday, November 14, 1996
EDITION: J SOONER
SECTION: J LOCAL
PAGE: J A-8
MEMO: J Because of the great interest in the verdict in the John Vojtas trial, we are running an expanded ``What They're Saying'' feature on community opinion.
After the jury's decision was announced, readers called the Post-Gazette's comment line and sent us letters and faxes. Many of those comments are reprinted here, along with statements from individuals with special knowledge or interest in the case.
The rules that control the newspaper's daily letters to the editor column apply in this instance, too. The authenticity of each letter or call was verified. If your letter or comment was not published today, that does not mean it will not be printed later on the editorial or opposite editorial pages. Discussion in this important public matter undoubtedly will continue for some time, and those regular Post-Gazette features will remain an important community forum.
John G. Craig Jr.
LEAD: J This is a very disgusting verdict that the Brentwood police can take the law into their own hands.
MICHELLE BROWN Hill District
I do not believe justice was served by finding John V. innocent. I think there was enough deliberation by the jury which makes me feel that indeed they questioned his innocence. I believe a jury of all white people did not do justice. I myself am white.
MARY PETRICH Shaler
I'm just outraged. With all the police officers they had at the scene they should have been able to subdue him without killing him.
DAVID FERRIS Latrobe
I'm appalled. Given what I've read in your paper, innocence on Vojtas' part is not called for. I cannot believe this. They're going to go back to Chester County again for a white jury?
MARLEY WOLFF Squirrel Hill
It's been a set up from the very beginning. It's a conspiracy. Colville and the judge are Klansmen. It's a KKK conspiracy.
PATRICK JIMMIE Hill District
Justice was not served. Number one because there was incontrovertible evidence by Dr. (Abdulrezak) Shakir, forensic pathologist, and Dr. (Cyril) Wecht, coroner, that Gammage died of asphyxiation caused by compression in the neck and upper chest with such force that Gammage's respiratory system was unable to function. Even the defense witness, Dr. (Donald) Reay, believed that Gammage died of restraint asphyxiation, that there was nothing unusual about the force police use. If this is the usual police practice, it better be changed.
``Number two, there was an all-white jury, and the third reason is Judge Cashman's behavior of calling the jurors after the aborted trial. He should have recused himself from this case. To me it's just another case of white cops getting away with murder of an innocent black man. It's terrible. To have this happen in my own city, it's terrible. I hope they can appeal this.
GRACE PETRICH Lawrenceville
I'm glad the verdict was not guilty. These men should not be on trial to begin with. John Vojtas was a policeman for 16 years, and I believe that if Jonny Gammage would have done what the police had asked him to do, this would not have happened. I'm glad it turned out this way.
MARIE ZIEGLER West Mifflin
I'm a white male from the South Hills, and I think that he should have been found guilty. The jury is totally wrong. I disagree with the jury's decision.
ELMER BAKAYSZA South Hills
I feel there is no justice system anywhere in the world. As long as you have a badge, you can do anything you want. Vojtas is the guiltiest officer who was charged, and he should pay his time for what he did.
DARLENE McAFEE Carrick
I'm disgusted by it. I think it's very like the O.J. Simpson case. It's a travesty of justice. Vojtas should have gotten something. I'm close to the Brentwood area and I'm very upset about this. The whole system today stinks. I have a son in the police business, a prison officer, and he says the same thing. People are afraid. They're not safe on the streets. They're afraid there's going to be an uproar around here. I heard men talking in a Brentwood Burger King. They said, if they find Vojtas guilty, there's going to be problems around here (Brentwood). I think Vojtas should have been put out of the police department a long time ago for other reasons.
PEARL EHRENBERGER Baldwin Borough
This verdict is unbelievable that the defendant has been found not guilty. The evidence was there. Someone must take responsibility for this man's death. Also, something must be done about the law enforcement officers. These are people that are supposed to protect.
I think this is the craziest thing I've heard of so far in my 19 years of life. I do not understand or I cannot believe that he is found not guilty.
The evidence is there, and no matter how we look at it, a man still died that night, and someone needs to take responsibility for that.
I don't understand how we're going to raise our children to think the police are supposed to take care of them. They're hearing these things every day. Future generations are going to have problems.
Something needs to be done. I do not think the man should have died I definitely don't think no one should be charged with it.
Someone needs to take some reponsibility for our law enforcement.
EBONY HARVEY Hill District
I believe that the verdict was very fair. I believe it's the only verdict that could have been rendered.
DON CAMPUS Library
I don't know where these jurors are coming up. First it was let a man guilty like O.J. Simpson and now this policeman who is guilty, now he's let go free. I think the whole country ought to just go around killing people, you can get off with nothing.
It's ridiculous to put the other two policemen on trial because they will get off. I feel very sorry for Gammage's parents.
BERNICE FOX South Side
I don't think it was a fair decision. It shouldn't have been an all-white jury. I don't think that justice was served in this case. No one should get killed for being stopped for a driving violation.
MARILYN SUSSMAN Squirrel Hill
Pittsburgh began to round up (accused members of the Larimer Avenue Wilkinsburg gang on Tuesday). So why did they do that? Because they knew what the verdict was going to be. They thought there would be reprisals. I'm a minister and I know. Everything that is covered will be revealed when God sheds light upon it.
JOHN ROSS Baldwin Borough
My apologies to the Gammage family. I hope that this impression of the city of Pittsburgh is not one that you hold in your heart.
We are not, in the city of Pittsburgh, a bunch of racists that go around killing young black men that happen to be in the wrong community at the wrong time.
I just pray for all of you.
RITA DOYLE North Side
I was disappointed when jurors for both the Mulholland-Albert trial and the Vojtas trial were picked from a practically all-white juror pool. I was appalled at the mistrial verdict, just when I thought there was a possibility of justice. I am crushed by the not-guilty verdict. I am afraid for our humanity when I hear people saying they don't care about this or that Mr. Gammage should have just shut up and listened. Policemen have a difficult job and they should be trained to act professionally and responsibly. I'd like to believe if my children were ever in police custody, they would emerge alive, no matter what they said or acted like, as long as they were not a threat to the life of the officer. There was no justice in Pittsburgh today.
LYNN KINNEY Whitaker
The verdict is unfortunate, but African Americans are not exclusive in being abused by the police. Both my husband and I are professionals and had some really bad experiences, and you don't hear of the white community having these experiences too.
I think that they've made this a complete racial issue, which it is not. I think it truly is the way the police are trained. They look at the person they stop in a traffic incident as being criminal, and that's not the case at all. Most people are tax-paying citizens and, unfortunately, I think the police really need to look at their retraining.
I know my husband and I have both had extremely bad experiences. We're both white, we're professional and our children are the same way. You don't hear about us. We're the quiet minority.
HELEN STEIN Fox Chapel
I think it's disgraceful, the way the NAACP is acting. I didn't see them do that when the Simpson case was on. When a white person gets murdered by a black and they get off, they don't say a word. And I think it's certainly disgraceful. People are people. They're making people prejudiced that aren't prejudiced. Again, I repeat, I think it's a disgrace, and I think that asking the government to step in is just ridiculous.
MARLENE SHERMAN Pitcairn
I just wanted to say that I think it was a miscarriage of justice and completely unfair to go to Lackawanna County for a jury in this case. They don't have a clue of the racism toward black men in segments of the police department.
NORMA DUBIN Shadyside
Oh, I just can't believe he was found not guilty. I'm white, but I was just shocked. I'm just shocked.
KAREN DOLBY McKees Rocks
That's one step forward for cops, one giant step backwards for citizens.
ALBERTA PATTERSON Spring Garden
As an African American in the city of Pittsburgh, the only thing I can say about the verdict is: God help us all.
MARNA TAYLOR Wilkinsburg
It is an outrage. A man dies in police custody for a routine traffic stop and the police literally get away with murder.
I don't think so. This is America. What has happened to our justice system?
This poor man is dead, will never live another day. And these police go scot free. Officer Vojtas goes scot free. Sorry. More like, it's just an outrage.
SUE STEIS Kittanning
I am a 32-year-old black male who lives in the city of Pittsburgh.
I am very appalled at the case with the decision to acquit Mr. Vojtas.
The charge was involuntary manslaughter. It was not murder, which has to be premeditated. I think involuntary manslaughter was a fair charge and it seems that with the facts I've seen in this case, it's what would happen in that situation and that incident.
DALE WILSON Greenfield
I have a mixed reaction to the verdict. I am not exactly sure if he should have been found guilty or not, but I do know one thing: It should not be turned into a racial matter as it seems to be right now; that it's the whites against the blacks, but what happens when its the blacks against the whites?
SANDRA DiLEMBO Bellevue
My initial reaction was that I was appalled, not unlike I was appalled at the O.J. verdict not long ago, but I had the feeling it could only happen in California, not in Pennsylvania. I think some people may feel this is in some way an answer back. I've been in conversation with a lot of people and they look at it as a reversal of the misjustice in the O.J. trial, and two wrongs don't make a right, obviously. Whereas the wrong in O.J.'s case you have a man out of work playing golf all the time, as opposed to Vojtas who will probably be back in uniform supposedly dispensing justice. It's a damn shame. I'm not black and I try not to bring any race into it, but what I gathered of the facts, it seemed awfully clear that excessive force was used. It's unbelievable that a jury could OK this kind of action by a police officer. They perhaps somehow feel immune, because this kind of justice will only be dispensed to blacks.
TIMOTHY FULLERTON Leechburg
I definitely believe it was a travesty in the verdict. Number one, they moved it out of the venue, which stacked the deck.
The misrepresentation and improprieties of this administration as a whole, from Colville to Wecht, set up for a bad situation, as well, as any time you have your superiors, your leaders on hand, who don't take charge and are not held accountable for the actions of themselves as well as their men, it's a travesty waiting to happen.
Another thing is, white American must understand as well that a guy like Vojtas, this could happen to their children too. Allowing him to get away with it is just like saying, Gestapo, run free.
CLARENCE SAMUEL North Side
I think that it was a travesty of justice. Nobody should be stopped for a suspected traffic violation - if, in fact, there even was one - and end up dead. I would be very upset if it were my son. And I'm upset even though it isn't my son. We have to take a very close look at some of the men on police forces. Many are dedicated. There are very good ones, but those who have turned bad are frightening. I used to tell my children when they were small if they were in trouble to call a police officer. But now, I would think twice before advising that.
SHIRLEY WISE Ingram
In the past few years, we've witnessed some of the most blatant miscarriages of justice in our country's history. First, the Rodney King beating, followed by the Reginald Denny beating. Amazingly both of these assaults were caught on film, but it didn't matter to the juries involved. Then came the O.J. Simpson trial, where race was put on trial and jurors were instructed by (defense attorney) Johnny Cochran to ignore the facts and send a message. Now, in what appears to be another travesty, a not-guilty verdict was returned in the Vojtas trial. I am confident if the jurors in the Simpson and Vojtas trials were switched, both men would be found guilty. Is it any wonder so many people have no faith in a judicial system that is supposed to be blind but also appears to be deaf and dumb.
MARTY STEWART Plum
I feel that it's a wrong verdict. What I think is really ridiculous about it is the fact that there were five or six police officers, and it took that many people to kill one person. And these people are trained police officers, which makes me wonder if these officers are really adequately trained. I feel this sends a bad message to people in general because people will now think that an officer can get away with murder.
FAITH MILAZZO Avalon
I think the verdict is incorrect. I disagree with it. I think he should be punished in some way.
MINA JOHNSTON Mt. Lebanon
This verdict is the most cruel verdict and it violated the black community. I have great respect for police officers but no respect for the defendent. I will continue to fight to get him off the street. This man should not be police officer. I believe it should be considered a mistrial because of the 12 white jurors.
CHRISTOPHER SHALLHAMMER Neville Island
I am outraged. I think that this is a travesty of justice but yet not surprised. I think the real verdict was handed down when they took the jury pool from outside of Allegheny County and found two places where they would be most likely to get an all-white jury of which they succeeded in doing twice. I think the verdict was handed down when the prosecution did not contest the jury pools, also when the prosecution decided to prosecute only three of the five officers and to prosecute them for the least serious charge when a death is involved. I think it's time now for the feds to step in. I think all five officers should be indicted on federal civil rights violations. I think that this should be tried by a federal judge in federal court untainted by the corruption and racism that evidently permeates Allegheny County government. My heart goes out to the Gammage family and to the black community in Pittsburgh and to all those who believe in justice.
PAUL VONDRA Bellevue
Of the three versions of John Vojtas, which one did the jury swallow and why? This brutally unfair verdict is an unbelievable slap in the face to anyone looking for justice for Johnny Gammage.
CONNIE DUKOVIC Lawrenceville
I believe the verdict is just an absolute travesty of justice. There is no possible way that someone, stopped because they were tapping their brakes, should be dead. Absolutely not. I am shocked. I question how Cashman instructed the jury. Thank you.
GLORIA SKILLINGS North Side
I don't believe it was a good verdict because the man shouldn't have died, no matter what happened.There should have been some kind of a verdict of at least involuntary manslaughter.
GERALDINE RYAN Lawrenceville
I am very disappointed in the outcome of this case, as I have been all along with the mistrial, and the mere fact that someone can be stopped for a traffic ticket and be killed.
I feel that if they hadn't split the trials into two trials and had all three officers tried at the same time, they might have gotten a guilty conviction but the way they split it up, I feel that influenced the fact they couldn't find one officer solely responsible for the death, and I'm disappointed in the government and the politics of this city.
SUSAN DLOUGHY Mt. Lebanon
After Rodney King, after O.J. Simpson, this nation is no longer naive. It is incredible to me that the jury in a case like this was allowed to be drawn from an all-white county.
It is hard to fault the jury. If they don't live among African Americans, it is at least arguable that they cannot comprehend the extent to which white police officers have terrorized the African-American community in this city. What is clearly at fault is the process that allowed this case to be tried by 12 white people.
PATRICIA SCHUETZ Regent Square
John Vojtas, as well as the other police involved, has been tried simultaneously in two courts: a court of law and a court of public opinion. The court of law followed strict rules of evidence, and attempted to discover the facts and determine guilt. The court of public opinion followed waves of high emotion, in which the outcome of the legal trial came to represent resolution of complex issues ranging from justice for the victim to the whole matter of general police behavior in mixed-race circumstances. In the legal trial, Vojtas was found innocent. In the public trial, he had already been found guilty, not because of the facts of the case, but because of these other factors.
The Post-Gazette covered the legal trial, and did so extremely well. The paper was a major player in the public trial, often fanning the flames of emotion in stories with little news value and over-dramatic headlines. Our freedom of the press system makes this perfectly legal; the only check upon the media is the judgment of editors and the opinion of readers. As a reader, I am disappointed in the editorial judgment displayed, and dismayed at some of the inflammatory items the PG published.
The hero of the story, to my mind, is Judge Cashman. While I disagree with some of his rulings, I applaud his diligent and largely successful efforts to keep the two trials separate. To have allowed the public trial to influence the legal trial would have been a severe miscarriage of justice.
WILLIAM R. WHIPPLE Bethany, W.Va.
Remember that John Vojtas said - ``A black man was staring at me.'' What John Vojtas did to Jonny Gammage is no different than what white men in the South used to do when a black man had the audacity to look them in the eye. I attended the inquest, the mistrial, and this trial from start to finish, and there is no way these jurors, two of whom are related to police officers, went into this without bias.
CYNTHIA GOGGIN Observatory Hill
So upset about the verdict. So ashamed this happened in Pittsburgh.
MARY PHILLIPS Penn Hills
I think the verdict is unfair. And I think the police can apprehend suspects without killing them, so why did they have to kill this man for a traffic violation?
ROBERT ROGERS Shaler
I am absolutely outraged at the not-guilty verdict for John Vojtas. I don't know what else to say; at the moment I am speechless and stunned.
CAROL NORA DIETHORN South Side
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