FROM THE ARCHIVES: Prosecutors: Justice served
Editor's note: This article originally was published March 14, 2003.
Moments after he was found guilty of murder, Leon “Smickel” Wright walked over to the family of his victim, sitting together in the second row of the courtroom.
“I’m sorry about your misfortune, but I had nothing to do with the shooting,” he said.
Still, he said he accepted responsibility and asked: “Will you forgive me?”
“I accept your apology. I can’t forgive you,” replied Barry Schaad, the younger brother of a white police officer killed during York’s 1969 race riots.
The two men shook hands.
After 7½ hours of deliberations over two days, a jury convicted Wright and Stephen D. Freeland, two black men, of second-degree murder in the killing of Officer Henry Schaad.
The men face a maximum of 10 to 20 years in prison for their roles in the slaying of the only city police officer ever killed in the line of duty.
Freeland, already in prison on an unrelated drug charge, was returned to jail, but Judge John Chronister allowed Wright to remain free on bail pending their April 21 sentencing.
“Justice is done,” said lead prosecutor Bill Graff. “Let’s close this chapter of York’s history and move on.”
Outside the courthouse afterward, Wright said the verdict did not surprise him.
“I knew that I was going to be found guilty because York is like that. It will never change,” Wright said.
Death of officer: Schaad, 22, was inside the city police patrol van, “Big Al,” in a black neighborhood July 18, 1969, when a .30-caliber bullet pierced the metal and wounded him in several places. He died two weeks later at York Hospital.
In five days of testimony, prosecutors brought to the stand 33 witnesses, many of them black men in their 50s, who were among a crowd at South Penn Street and West College Avenue as Big Al drove past.
The nine-day trial’s most significant testimony may have come from Wright’s brother Michael “Pickle-nose” Wright, who admitted that he, Freeland and Leon Wright all shot at the converted bank truck that night.
Graff credited the surprise testimony with making a difference in the case, at least for Leon Wright.
“I think his brother’s testimony did him in. He put him at the scene, firing. I found him credible. (The jury) apparently found him credible,” Graff said.
A decision on whether to charge Michael Wright could be made in a week or so, after Graff consults with investigators and his boss, District Attorney Stan Rebert.
Graff called the admission “serious business” that may have consequences. Michael Wright had not been given immunity, was not represented by a lawyer and had previously denied he and his brother had been involved in the shooting.
Murder or manslaughter: Another pivotal element in the trial was the judge’s instruction to the jury about which charges they would consider.
Both defendants were facing possible conviction on first- or second-degree murder. But they had the option to waive the statute of limitations and permit conviction on a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence range of only six to 12 years.
Freeland chose to do so, but Wright didn’t.
Wright’s attorney, Bill Fulton, said he wasn’t second-guessing the decision and said there’s no way to know if the jury would have opted for the lesser charge.
But Graff said the decision may have backfired.
“He rolled the dice. He gambled. He lost,” the prosecutor said.
Freeland’s lawyer, Terry McGowan, insisted the second-degree convictions were too harsh, given the evidence.
“This was a voluntary manslaughter case at most,” he said.
Possible appeals: McGowan said Freeland will appeal. Among the possible grounds are Chronister’s decision to allow into evidence a grisly photo of the victim taken shortly after death and that the passage of 33 years altered memories and caused the loss of witnesses and evidence.
McGowan, whose client, Freeland, provided the only defense testimony when he took the stand to deny shooting Schaad, said he didn’t think any single witness made the difference.
“It was the cumulative effect of it all, and I think there’s a lot of bias and sympathy that couldn’t be set aside,” McGowan said. “Somebody had to answer for a dead policeman.”
Whatever basis the jurors used to make their decision, they weren’t talking about it. The seven men and five women left the courthouse without making any comment, and court administrator Bob Chuk said they had all indicated they didn’t want to talk to reporters. Reached at home last night, three jurors declined to be interviewed.
Back with a verdict: Before the trial, lawyers indicated it might take two weeks, but the case wrapped up Tuesday afternoon, a week after testimony began.
Deliberations began Wednesday with a three-hour session. The jury spent 2 ½ hours on the case yesterday morning, took an hour for lunch, then reached a verdict shortly before 3 p.m.
Forty minutes later, as clerk Yvonne Slonaker read the verdicts, neither defendant displayed any emotion. The audience did not react to Freeland’s guilty verdict, but there was an audible groan when Wright’s was announced.
Led back to jail by deputies, Freeland made a subtle gesture to acknowledge his family. Over Graff’s objection, Chronister allowed Wright to remain free on $100,000 bail.
The two men’s lawyers speculated that Wright may get a lighter sentence than Freeland — who was named by more witnesses as a shooter and who has a far more extensive criminal history.
Prosecutors also alleged it was Freeland who fired the fatal shot.
Specific sentencing guidelines in use today were not in effect in 1969, so Chronister has the discretion to impose any sentence from probation to the maximum 20 years in prison.
In the other riots-murder case — the fatal shooting of Lillie Belle Allen three days after Schaad was shot, six blocks away on North Newberry Street — two men were convicted five months ago of second-degree murder and received sentences of 4½ to 9 and nine to 19 years in prison.
Healing power: After the verdict, the lawyers looked for meaning in the case.
Watching the Schaad family speak with reporters on the courthouse steps, prosecutor Tim Barker said he was trying to “step back and realize we just convicted two people for the murder in the death of Henry Schaad. … I want to enjoy what they got, finally, after all these years.”
Asked if he thought justice was served, Wright’s lawyer Fulton was philosophical.
“I don’t think it’s a travesty of justice — it’s just justice,” he said.
Over the three-plus years since the case was reopened, many in the community have second-guessed the decision, predicting there would not be charges, then doubting whether convictions could be obtained.
Graff said he hopes the results will be positive.
“Don’t you think this kind of gives the city closure?” he asked. “It should have been solved back then. But for one reason or another, it wasn’t. We got it now.”