The voice on the tape sounds disturbed: “I’m a 68-year-old man with a heart condition, why are you doing this to me?” Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. fought in the Vietnam war, as a Marine. He was a retired prison warder, well accustomed to law enforcement. But in the early hours of November 19, 2011, as police officers refused to leave his doorstep, he began to fear for his life.
“This is my sworn testimony,” he can be heard saying. “White Plains police are going to come into my house and kill me.” A few minutes later, they broke his door down and proved him right.
The shooting of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida has become a hugely divisive news story in the United States, prompting outrage, then backlash. Now that George Zimmerman has been charged with murder, a court will decide whether he acted in self-defence, in what promises to be one of the most politicised, racially-freighted trials since O.J. Simpson’s.
Meanwhile, the Chamberlain case, in many ways more shocking, has gone largely unreported. A grand jury is meeting in New York state to determine whether Officer Anthony Carelli should be charged in connection with the killing. That he pulled the trigger is not in dispute. Police say Chamberlain had a knife and a hand axe and was about to stab an officer when he was shot.
The hearing is closed to the public, but the key evidence is known: two video tapes and an audio recording lasting almost an hour that document the confrontation, although crucially not the moment Chamberlain was shot. His family’s lawyers hope that the tapes will be released. “When you see that tape, hear the footage and consider your own parents confused and in distress, unwilling to let someone in, it causes great concern,” says attorney Mayo Bartlett.
Chamberlain suffered from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Neighbours say he sometimes screamed at night and threatened to kill himself. Officers were called to his flat in a council housing block when his LifeAid pendant sounded an alert and operators in a call centre were unable to rouse him. Most likely he activated the device, designed as an emergency lifeline for the elderly and infirm, in his sleep. From that point on, a box on the living room table, connected to the phone, recorded everything it heard.
“You can hear the police coming to the door and asking to speak with Mr Chamberlain,” says Bartlett. “He tells them he’s OK. Everyone seems to be calm.” But once he refuses to let them in, officers bang repeatedly on the steel door and Chamberlain becomes agitated. “Open the door, Kenny, I need to take a piss,” says one policeman. “Go find a bathroom,” he replies. “I don’t want to let you into my house. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
An offer to help, from Chamberlain’s niece, is declined. “Sir, please leave me alone. I’m a sick old man,” Chamberlain says. “We don’t give a fuck, nigger,” replies a cop – the White Plains Police Department says it is not Carelli. Soon after, video mounted on a Taser stun gun and CCTV in the housing block show police breaking the door off its hinges.
In the Taser video, as recounted by Bartlett, Chamberlain is standing well back, in his boxer shorts, apparently unarmed, with his hands down. Without a warning or command, the stun gun fires two prongs, but one misses. “Shut it off,” says a voice, and the tape ends. Police say they then shot four rounds from a bean bag gun, before using live ammunition as a last, defensive resort. An autopsy showed that the bullet that killed Chamberlain entered his body through his arm, held at his side.
Carelli’s lawyers have refused all requests for comment, but did issue a statement: “We trust that the criminal justice system is governed by laws and not agendas.” Carelli is facing a separate civil suit, launched by two Jordanian brothers who claim that after arresting them, he placed bags over their heads, called them “ragheads” and beat them while they were handcuffed. He denies any wrongdoing.
Ken Chamberlain Jr., a security consultant and martial arts expert, carries his father’s Marines ring and veteran’s ID card everywhere. “On the tape, that was the very first time I ever heard my father pleading, begging for his life,” he says.
“He was proud to be a Marine and you hear the police officers making fun of that. He says ‘I won’t let you in. Semper Fi [U.S. Marines motto: always loyal].’ So they reply ‘oh, you’re a Marine, hoo-rah, hoo-rah.’”
Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. was buried with full military honours, his coffin draped in the Stars And Stripes. A bugler played the last post, as two uniformed Marines offered a final salute. Last Thursday would have been his 69th birthday. “It’s an extremely difficult time,” his son says. “Because instead of celebrating his life I fight to get justice for his murder.”