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Slain boy supported outside, inside Fayette County Courthouse

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ignoring the icy black slush that sucked at his feet and spattered his bulky gray parka, 10-year-old Melvin Duley Jr. leaned as far into oncoming traffic as he dared to display the poster he'd printed himself, imploring motorists to "Honk for 12-year-old boy Michael Ellerbe."

Melvin Duley, 10, holds a sign outside the Fayette County Courthouse during the lunch break in the hearing over the death of 12-year-old Michael Ellerbe. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Related story: Coroner's jury rules police shooting of 12-year-old boy 'justified'

In a couple of hours, Melvin would be called to step into a witness box to recount what he'd seen while looking out of his bedroom window, across the street from where Ellerbe collapsed and died Dec.24 after being shot by state police. The prospect of having to talk in front of a courtroom crammed with police, reporters and stern-faced strangers had Melvin scared and nearly tongue-tied hours ahead of his afternoon appearance before a coroner's jury.

Later in the day, Melvin would look on while state troopers read statements he'd given them, saying he'd seen Trooper Juan Curry fire three times, killing Ellerbe. Those statements were later contradicted by Trooper Samuel Nassan, who testified that he -- not Curry -- fired once, killing Ellerbe.

But while he waited to testify, Melvin stood with his parents and about a dozen other people who gathered yesterday outside the Fayette County Courthouse to protest how Ellerbe died. His position, and that of his parents, were apparent as they smiled and waved at drivers who honked in response to his black-and-white posterboard sign.

"I'm scared to be here," Melvin said. "But I think it was wrong what happened to Michael."

So did the other protesters, who walked back and forth in front of the courthouse before and during breaks in testimony in yesterday's inquest. Some hummed or prayed quietly. Others carried brightly crayoned posters that proclaimed: "Honk For The Cause," or "No To Cop Violence" or were covered with copies of Ellerbe's smiling school photograph. Some came from Pittsburgh and carried signs identifying them as representatives of People Against Police Violence, a group recently formed in response to the deaths of Ellerbe as well as Charles Dixon and Damian Rogers while in the custody of Mount Oliver police and Bernard Rogers, who was shot to death in November in a confrontation with Pittsburgh Housing Authority Police.

"Michael was my friend's son, and I'm here to support my friend," said Donald Brown of Uniontown. "Some people in this community don't give a damn about what happened, but a lot of people do. This needs to be heard, and people are getting the idea of what's going on. There's too many things about [Ellerbe's death] that don't make sense."

The protests spurred many passersby -- blacks and whites -- to respond with light taps or full-blown blasts of their horns that could be heard for blocks in Uniontown's downtown business district. But the protesters moved inside the stately stone courthouse when testimony began, then scrambled for seats in a courtroom that, despite its generous proportions, was barely large enough to all who wanted inside.

With George Washington gazing down from an oil portrait high on the wall, the troopers who chased and fired at Ellerbe, their attorneys and Joel Sansone, attorney for Ellerbe's family, lined the row of seats in the front of the courtroom. Flanking them were several state police investigators or evidence experts, Fayette County District Attorney Nancy D. Vernon and Edward Borkowski, Allegheny County's top homicide prosecutor who was observing the inquest as an expert adviser to Fayette County Coroner Dr. Phillip E. Reilly.

State troopers in plainclothes packed seats along one wall, while their supervisors, Troop B. Capt. Roger Waters and Uniontown station Lt. Harvey Cole, looked on from the back row. In front were Clinton Anderson, the Revs. Louis Ridgely and Robert Spence and other representatives of Fayette County's NAACP chapter.

In the center of the stuffy, overheated courtroom, dozens of relatives and friends of Ellerbe's family clustered around his father and stepmother, Michael Hickenbottom and Rene Randolph. Holding hands or draping arms around each others' shoulders, they listened quietly to graphic testimony about their son's injuries. Hickenbottom visibly trembled and wiped his eyes when investigators played a videotape that showed an ambulance crew treating his dying son.

Outside the courtroom, Melvin Jr. waited with other witnesses and his parents for his turn to take the stand. His parents, Melvin Duley Sr. and Elsie Cornish, said they helped Melvin Jr. make his sign and urged him to join the earlier protests, saying his actions outside the courthouse would have no effect on his testimony.

"My boy knows what he saw, and I've told him -- 'Don't be afraid, just tell what you've seen and tell the truth," the elder Duley said, acknowledging that his son's account was starkly different from that given by state police.

Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973.

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