FROM THE ARCHIVES: '69 riot murders 'eerily similar'
Editor's note: This article originally was published April 22, 2003.
Calling the two cases “eerily similar,” a York County judge yesterday gave two black men convicted of killing a white police officer the same sentences given last year to two white men convicted of murdering a black woman during the 1969 York City race riots.
York County President Judge John H. Chronister sentenced Stephen D. Freeland to nine to 19 years in state prison for the shooting of rookie city police officer Henry Schaad.
He also sentenced Leon F. “Smickel” Wright to 4½ to 10 years in prison for shooting at the armored vehicle in which Schaad was riding.
On July 18, 1969, a black mob fired at the vehicle; a bullet pierced the armored plating, striking Schaad in the back. He died at York Hospital 10 days later.
Freeland and Wright were convicted in February of second-degree murder.
In determining the sentences, Chronister said he couldn’t help but draw a parallel to the riots’ other murder. Lillie Belle Allen was gunned down by a white mob three days after Schaad was shot. Robert N. Messersmith and Gregory H. Neff were convicted in October of second-degree murder in Allen’s death.
Chronister said he tried to apply the three basic tenets of sentencing — punishment, protection of the community and rehabilitation of the defendants. But because of the number of years that has passed, only one of the three tenets applied.
“What we’re really talking about here is punishment,” he said. “I think there should be some consistency.”
Chronister said both Freeland and Messersmith deserved the longer sentences — they are believed to have fired the fatal shots and both have lengthy criminal records.
Like Neff, Wright fired a gun, but his shot is not believed to have killed the victim. Also, both Wright and Neff had shorter records than their codefendants.
Escaping charges: In both cases, Chronister said, many involved in the shootings were never charged — either because they were dead, agreed to testify as prosecution witnesses or there wasn’t enough evidence against them.
Chronister said he took into account the violence and confusion of the riots. He acknowledged at least the appearance that police officers sided with white gang members against blacks.
But he said a race war was no excuse for killing.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” Chronister said.
Freeland was returned after sentencing to the State Correctional Institution in Somerset where he is serving a drug sentence. Wright, who was free on bail pending sentencing, was immediately taken into custody.
As Wright was handcuffed, he turned to family and friends, smiled and blew them a kiss. Freeland waved to a little girl in the back row.
No apology: Freeland’s attorney Terry McGowan asked Chronister to take into account the turbulence of the riots and the influence of police.
“There was in fact bigotry and racism in the police department in 1968 and 1969,” McGowan said.
Before his sentencing, Freeland took the stand. But instead of apologizing to the Schaad family, he railed against the system.
Like Messersmith at his sentencing in December, Freeland said he was a scapegoat to political correctness, arguing he had been set up by the district attorney’s office.
“This is the first time I came to court looking for justice in a city where there is none. York is still very racial,” Freeland said.
Freeland said he will appeal.
“It will come back to bite you on the ass,” he said.
Wright did not speak at sentencing, but his attorney, Bill Fulton, asked Chronister for leniency, saying the only reason his client was charged was because he refused to testify against Freeland.
“He is here because of his street code of honor,” Fulton said.
‘Killing zone’: Lead prosecutor Bill Graff said he was unmoved by the defendants’ cry for sympathy and “sickened” by the attempt to escape culpability by blaming police.
In requesting the maximum sentence of 20 years, Graff said Wright and Freeland were part of a plot by blacks to ambush any white who entered the neighborhood. He pointed out 14 other white people had been attacked near the intersection of Penn Street and College Avenue before Schaad.
“These two defendants set up a killing zone,” Graff said.
Graff told Chronister to remember Wright and Freeland killed a police officer in the line of duty and “started this riot.”
Face to face: For the first time since the trial began, Henry Schaad’s mother got to see her son’s killers in person. Carrie Schaad suffered a stroke years ago and has been living in a nursing home. She did not attend the trial.
Family members said she never recovered after her youngest son’s death. They say the investigation has been difficult for her emotionally and they have shielded her from the media glare. In asking for the maximum sentence, Schaad’s brother Barry told the court Wright and Freeland so far escaped justice for the “cowardly act” of shooting Henry in the back “under cover of darkness.”
Schaad’s daughter, Sharon Schaad Howe, told the court how Freeland and Wright deprived her of so many special moments with her father.
“He missed my first communion, my graduations, my wedding, the birth of his grandchildren. These two defendants were allowed to enjoy these privileges for two long,” she said.
Freeland’s family: But Freeland’s brother-in-law, Fares Washington, took the stand to describe how Freeland was one of nine children who took care of the family after his father died.
Washington said he thought the sentences were “a little harsh” and said the whole system was culpable because of police bigotry.
Despite the parallel sentences, one of Freeland’s family members complained later that the court system treats black men differently.
“There is no justice in the system for a black man,” Eric Sweeney said.
Graff said he would not second-guess the sentence, saying he had nothing to say to Wright and Freeland other than “good riddance.”
“I’m not going to talk to those thugs,” Graff said. “I don’t have time for people like that. No one set them up. They committed the crime.
“I’m not going to lose any sleep over this.”
Charges pending: Charges against Wright’s brother, Michael “Picklenose” Wright, should be filed in the next couple of weeks, he said.
During the trial, Michael Wright shocked a crowded courtroom with his on-the-stand confession that he, along with his brother and Freeland, fired at Schaad’s armored car.
Howe said she isn’t sure if the family is prepared to go through another trial, “but we do want to see justice.”
“Everyone on that corner was guilty to some degree.”
The Allen case also pitted brother against brother when Arthur Messersmith, in exchange for leniency, accepted a plea agreement and testified against his brother Robert.
Six other men pleaded guilty to lesser charges in the Allen case. One defendant, former York Mayor Charles Robertson, was acquitted of murder in October.
Disappointed: Schaad’s family said they were disappointed that Freeland and Wright did not receive the maximum sentences, but they were willing to accept it.
Acknowledging the Allen family’s pain, Barry Schaad said he hoped that his brother’s profession would have been taken into consideration. Under current Pennsylvania law, killing a police officer can be considered an aggravating factor at sentencing, but no such law existed in the 1969 statutes used to try the defendants in both cases.
Just as Neff did at his sentencing hearing, Wright apologized to the victim’s family during the trial, even as he maintained his innocence.
At the time, Barry Schaad said he accepted Wright’s apology, but could not forgive him. Like Allen family members who said they would pray for her killers, Barry Schaad said yesterday he would pray to God to forgive Wright if he were someday to take responsibility for Henry Schaad’s death.
“I’ll never forgive him,” he said outside the courthouse.