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A few months past his 16th birthday, Jerrod Miller longed for manhood. Throughout the beginning of 2005, the Delray Beach teen had been searching for part-time work in his hometown, but landing a first job isn't easy even more difficult if you're a black teenager. Tall and lanky, with short-cropped hair, Jerrod had a shy streak and a tendency to freeze up during confrontations, but he was popular with the girls. He had kept on the straight and narrow, with a passion for computers and activities at church, where he earned a reputation for helping older parishioners.
On the cool Saturday evening of February 26, Jerrod probably felt more man than boy behind the steering wheel of his uncle's 1988 Cadillac. Although he'd failed his written driver's license test a few months earlier, Jerrod managed to finagle the Cadillac from his uncle from time to time, despite objections from the boy's grandmother, with whom he lived. As far as she knew, Jerrod was Miami-bound that night for a church-league basketball game.
Instead, Jerrod cruised the neighborhood. Several times, he picked up teens who asked for a lift to the dance at the Delray Beach Full Service Center School. The inelegantly named junior high school was hosting a dance in the gym for 12- to 16-year-olds. Just before 9 p.m., Jerrod motored into the west gate and pulled the Caddy up beside the gym; several teens hopped out. Only about 20 kids had actually paid their $5 to get into the dance, and some mingled outside waiting for friends to arrive.
Darren Cogoni, a baby-faced, 23-year-old rookie cop with the Delray Beach Police Department, stood near the gym entrance and took special note of the car. He'd seen a similar vehicle gunning its engine and squealing its tires about 15 minutes earlier on the street running past the school. Cogoni and his partner, Kenneth Brotz, both of whom are white, walked toward the car. Both men were working for the school on off-duty detail, but they were armed and dressed in full uniform.
During the aftermath of the tragedy this night was to spawn, many have imagined what Jerrod was thinking and feeling as Cogoni stepped up to the driver's-side door and asked the boy for his license. Much of what is known about the case comes from a statement given by Cogoni hours later.
Cogoni described Jerrod as "fidgety" and "nervous." Brotz, who stood near the front driver's-side fender, recalled the boy being "jittery" and repeatedly stammering, "I'm just, ahh..." Jerrod bowed his head. Cogoni took one step backward as he continued to ask Jerrod for identification and rested his right hand on the butt of his holstered .40 caliber Glock. Undoubtedly feeling panic, Jerrod suddenly gunned the car, and Brotz stepped back out of the way of the side mirror. Several teens scrambled up the gym's concrete steps as the Cadillac barely missed grazing them.
Cogoni scrambled after the car, with Brotz not far behind. Jerrod turned left wildly and pulled between two buildings that formed a breezeway. Although this passage wasn't intended for vehicles, Jerrod raced on, the car scraping loudly as it bounced from side to side against the walls. Cogoni charged after it, pulling his handgun out of the holster. Stopping about 12 feet behind the car, he said he saw a "large, large group of people" at the end of that breezeway.
"I was close enough to see the headrest of the driver's seat through the back window, and I was able to see a silhouette of a head, of the driver," Cogoni said later. "I couldn't see any passengers in the vehicle." He took aim and fired two shots. One of the bullets plowed into the back of Jerrod's head and lodged just behind his left eye. He likely died instantly, and the car continued forward until it slammed into a cement retaining wall.
The eight months since Jerrod died have not been easy ones for his family or the City of Delray Beach. Many in the city, both black and white, reacted with outrage that one of the city's police officers had been either so cavalier or so inexperienced as to shoot a fleeing teenager.
"There was a lot of seething," says Jayne King, a white 53-year-old former teacher and community activist whose husband is black. "It had been festering for years and years and years, but the shooting just blew the lid off it."
Under public pressure, Palm Beach County's state attorney, Barry Krischer, convened a public inquest to determine whether Cogoni should face criminal charges. After a three-day hearing in April, the inquest judge found that the killing was not justifiable and that there was probable cause to charge him with manslaughter.
Months passed as Krischer delayed making formal charges. Then, in July, Krischer unexpectedly sent the case to a grand jury, which convenes in private, and a record of its deliberations is never released. A month later, the grand jury declined to indict the young police officer.
The shooting and its aftermath have fueled long-simmering racial tensions in the city, the result largely of the Police Department's lengthy history of exonerating officers involved in shootings and the City Hall-led gentrification of Delray's east side, which is largely white.