To Seals, Verdict Widens Racial Gap
Sean Kirst

He got in the car Thursday morning and drove. Got in the car, his mother beside him in the passenger seat, turned the wheels toward the south and drove hard out of Pittsburgh.

Not guilty. Not guilty of all charges. Those are the words that chased Ray Seals from town, that pushed him toward Duke University to lose himself in rehab, doing endless workouts to rebuild his injured arm.

In the car, as the countryside slid past, Seals would sometimes drift away into thought. Then he turn toward his mother to repeat in a soft voice the brief, precise description of how his cousin died.

Death by compression.

On television in Pittsburgh, he had seen John Votjas' face, a policeman giving thanks to justice and his God, and a few looks at that was enough to drive Seals out.

"This cop on every show, acting like a hero," said Seals, the soft gravel voice always staying at one level. "A hero. Easy for him to say. It's not his son or brother dead."

A silence on the phone, and then that same soft voice.

"Death by compression," Ray Seals said again.

Jonny Gammage was his cousin, his confidant, his business partner. They had been close, beyond close, since they were little children. Mark Seals, Ray's younger brother, recalled last week how the three of them as kids would climb on ropes at the Public Safety Building gym, while Tommy Seals and other policemen ran up and down the basketball court.

Ray is a cop's son, brought up by a man whose blues hung in the closet. It explained how Ray reacted more than a year ago on the day after Jonny died, his cousin dead in Pittsburgh after a struggle with five white cops. In African-American neighborhoods, angry, frightened people put their ears to the wind.

What they heard was Ray. He is a prominent Steeler, a man of great respect, an embodiment of a child's fantasy. No college, and yet he made it to the NFL. He is a 300-pound defensive end who listens to Gospel music before he goes after a quarterback, a guy from the projects but also from the church.

And he is, amid all that, the son of a black cop.

With Jonny dead, Ray asked for patience. Leave it to the system.

"A slap in the face," Ray said Thursday, speaking of the verdict. "I tried my best to keep everybody from being upset and going crazy. That got me all these pats on the back, people like the mayor of Pittsburgh saying that was the right thing. They wanted me to be a goody two-shoes.

"But they didn't play their part. They didn't make sure this was a fair trial."

Jonny was driving Ray's black Jaguar on the night he got stopped, driving that fine Jag through a nice neighborhood. He was mortally wounded a few feet away from Ray's own car. In the courtroom the defense argued, well, he kind of asked for it.

And while Jesse Jackson called it "a lynching" and many saw it as a symbol of America today, racial prejudice forbidden but used behind closed and twice-locked doors, Ray remembered where he came from and asked for restraint.

He said that to the city of Pittsburgh, and to his teammates on the Steelers, and beyond all else to the Gammages themselves, to his Aunt Narves and his Uncle Jon. He had always been around their house, almost a second son.

"When I first heard the word (not guilty), I felt really bad for my aunt, because I knew she would take it worse than anybody," Ray said. "We kept telling her to hang in there. Justice will be served. Justice will do it all. Then to watch this whole deal, the politics to make sure this cop gets off...

"Politics," he said again. "Racist politics."

To hear that from Ray is another kind of slap. He had stayed away from talking race as the case came together. He thought often of his father, the way he worked the streets as a cop. Ray also thought of all the white men who had shown him compassion, who helped him make the almost impossible jump from the street to big-time football.

"Back in the days, my father was a kind of different cop," Ray said. "He was there to solve problems, to try and help people. Nowadays, you get these guys with their shiny boots and leather gloves and spiked haircuts and their shades, and they're not here to protect and to serve. It's like they're in the movies, like they're Robocop."

Racist. The word, from Ray, is jolting, unexpected. His whole life philosophy has been uplifting faith, no dream completely dead until you stop dreaming it.

The judge had ordered a jury selected away from Pittsburgh, because of the news hurricane surrounding the case. But why, Ray asked, did they have to select a jury without a single black member? Does it mean, he asked, that a black can't do the job, that a black is incapable of rendering true justice?

"Black experience is a whole lot different than white experience," he said. "Probably no one sitting on that jury had ever been harassed by a cop, didn't even have an idea of what that can mean. If you're in a car, if you're pulled over for nothing, if the officer's asking you stupid questions, then he's aggravating the situation."

He calls the verdict "baloney." What makes him sick is the way they painted Jonny in the courtroom, as an angry, snarling man ready to charge out at five cops.

This was Jonny, a guy who grew up in the church, said Ray. Jonny, who the day before his death had bent over backward to solve a problem with Ray's utility bill. Jonny, who had just called Mark Seals to talk about taking some street kids to the Million Man March. Jonny, the first guy in the family to go off to college, the guy who preached like a missionary about collegiate life.

This was Jonny, in Ray's Jaguar, in the middle of the night.

"Death by compression," Ray Seals said again. He was not surprised by the verdict. He saw it coming since they first picked the jury, saw it coming in the way all the evidence came down. While Votjas thanked God for giving him justice, the Gammage family showed its faith in God by skipping verdict day.

"That's why we didn't show up," Ray said. "We wanted to show that we didn't put our trust in man. The system, now, I've got no faith in it at all. Trust in God, that's what we all still have." They hung around Ray's place for a while after the verdict, "that damn TV" turned on around the clock, always coming back to Votjas and his lawyers. Finally, Ray had to get out. HIs mother, Blondirene, had been In Pittsburgh with him, and she got in the car and the two of them drove south.

Now he is at Duke University, working on the damaged arm that has kept him off the football field, trying to sweat all things from his mind. His injury, at first, had seemed devastating, getting taken from a season in which he aspired toward All-Pro.

He thinks now that getting hurt was a gift from God.

"How could I play football," he asks, "with my mind on all this?"

As he trains, his thoughts already focus on next year, when he becomes an NFL free agent. The Steelers elevated him when they brought him to Pittsburgh, gave him a chance to live out a childhood dream, gave him a chnace to sack the quarterback in the Super Bowl.

Yet, if he could do it again, he would have taken any offer from any other town. Because wherever he used to move, he used to move with Jonny.

"A guy with no record, no nothing, they put him in his grave," Seals said. "I don't live in that city; I play football there. That cop is all over TV, acting like a hero. I feel srory for the people. I don't hold it against the Steelers, but let them have Pittsburgh."

He expects he will be moving, this time by himself.