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Nassau DA reviewing 1998 fatal Hempstead police shooting

A picture of Paul Maxwell is attached to

A picture of Paul Maxwell is attached to a memorial on a lamppost on Milburn Avenue in Hempstead in February 2000. Credit: Newsday / Dick Yarwood

Nassau prosecutors are reviewing a previously closed 1998 case in which a Hempstead police officer fatally shot a village resident with a history of mental illness after he attacked police with a baseball bat.

The review of Paul Maxwell's death started after the attorney who represented his family at the time of the shooting recently asked Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas’ office to reopen the case and prosecute the now-retired officer.

A 1998 report that then-District Attorney Denis Dillon filed months after the shooting found Officer John Zoll was justified in using deadly force against Maxwell, who was 28.

The Hempstead man’s encounter with police started after the first officer who answered a 911 call about a naked man in the street saw him undressed and carrying a bat, the Dillon report said.

Maxwell Report by Newsday on Scribd

Maxwell used it to smash the windshield of the officer’s patrol car, shouting: "Do me. Do me," the report said.

In June, former Maxwell family attorney Thomas Liotti wrote a letter to Singas urging that Zoll "be prosecuted for the excessive use of force in murdering Paul Anthony Maxwell." He called such an action "long overdue."

New York has no time limit for when authorities can charge someone with murder.

Zoll, who retired as a sergeant in 2016 after more than 25 years on the police force, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Executive Assistant District Attorney Sheryl Anania, who works in Singas’ Conviction Integrity Review Unit, emailed Liotti in early August in response to his request.

"We have begun the process of reviewing the case. I will be in touch as our review continues," she wrote.

Singas spokeswoman Miriam Sholder confirmed that a review by the executive assistant district attorney was in progress.

"Anytime we receive an allegation of this nature, we conduct a thorough review of the facts and circumstances," Sholder added in a statement.

Maxwell was a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta and worked as a substitute teacher in Uniondale.

Maxwell also had run his mother’s insurance brokerage company for a time, held a trainee position at a Wall Street company, and even worked as a summer aide at the Nassau district attorney’s office in 1988.

But he struggled with psychiatric problems that began in 1996 after his mother's breast cancer death, his family said.

Maxwell was hospitalized several times for psychiatric treatment in mid-1996, according to Dillon’s findings, which said Hempstead police brought him to a hospital two of those times.

Stephanye Maxwell, the deceased’s sister-in-law, said in a recent interview that he was a "brilliant" young professional who kept working while caring for his dying mother before the mental breakdown that led to his fatal encounter with police.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice lecturer Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor in New York City, said there would have to be new or compelling evidence or a clear miscarriage of justice to bring charges against Zoll.

"Twenty-two years is a mighty long time in terms of the memories of witnesses," O’Donnell added.

Fordham Law School professor James Cohen said it wasn’t fair to Zoll to reopen the case decades later and called the chances of criminal charges "very, very small."

But Cohen also added that there was good reason to review the deadly shooting.

"The value in reopening a case is it is a second opportunity for justice to be done if justice was not done the first time around," he said.

Hours after the shooting on July 24, 1998, a Nassau County Police Department homicide sergeant released the following preliminary account of the event:

Hempstead police got a 911 call about a naked man in the street near Maxwell’s Windsor Parkway home at about 9:13 a.m. before arriving to find him carrying a baseball bat.

Maxwell smashed the windshield of a patrol car that arrived at the scene. Then two lieutenants arrived for backup before one lieutenant approached Maxwell and twice used a taser gun on him.

But Maxwell shrugged off the electric jolts, hitting the first lieutenant in the head and shoulder with the bat as the police official tried to back away.

The second lieutenant came to the first lieutenant’s aid, but Maxwell beat him back, striking the second officer on one of his shoulders and his back. Maxwell then turned to the first official — who had fallen — and raised the bat over his head.

That’s when Zoll, then a 9-year police department veteran who arrived separately, shot Maxwell twice with his 9 mm handgun. When Maxwell turned and came towards Zoll, the officer shot him three more times.

By 9:30 a.m., Maxwell was dead at the scene.

Dillon’s report, released in October 1998, largely mirrored the police account and added more details after an investigation that included interviews with 10 Hempstead police officials and collecting statements from eight civilian witnesses.

According to the Dillon report:

Maxwell spoke of his mother’s death, at one point shouting at police: "My mother just died and if you guys don’t want to die, you better run."

Fourteen witnesses said Maxwell was standing over the fallen lieutenant with the bat raised just before the shooting. Nine witnesses recalled seeing Maxwell advance toward Zoll "in a menacing manner" after Zoll first shot him.

From the time the first lieutenant fired the taser until Zoll finished shooting "was only a few seconds" and Maxwell was shot three times in the chest, once in the head and once in an arm.

Maxwell’s death was "largely caused by his irrational and unprovoked violence" towards police and "Officer Zoll clearly reasonably believed that the use of physical deadly force was necessary," it added.

"Although the police showed appropriate restraint when dealing with this emotionally disturbed person, the event rapidly escalated into a situation where deadly physical force was reasonably required," the report concluded.

It recommended police agencies review equipment and procedures for dealing with mentally disturbed people, consider the use of different nonlethal devices and regularly train officers in methods of handling those individuals.

In 1999, the state attorney general’s office gave Zoll an award for exceptional police work. A spokesman for then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said Zoll’s actions probably saved the life of at least one officer.

But Liotti, who no longer represents Maxwell’s family, said the Black man's death in a shooting by a white police officer was "definitely a case that fits into the Black Lives Matter scenario" and deserved another examination.

"Maybe after 22 years we’ve got a little bit more cognition on those issues," he said.

Stephanye Maxwell called the district attorney’s review "a good thing."

Maxwell, an attorney who works as a Maryland court administrator, also said her late brother-in-law’s police shooting death left "a permanent scar" on her family.

"We thought justice wasn’t served," said Maxwell, 58.

Chris Giardino, president of the Hempstead Police Benevolent Association, pointed out that Zoll was cleared years ago.

"You shouldn’t drag up an old case because of the current climate," the union leader said.

Zoll was a firearms instructor at the department’s outdoor training facility after his 2011 promotion to sergeant and later worked as a patrol supervisor before his retirement, according to Hempstead Assistant Police Chief Kevin Colgan.

"The incident was investigated by the DA’s office 22 years ago and it was deemed a justified shooting. We have no reason to believe any subsequent investigation will have a different outcome," Colgan said.

Maxwell’s father, Roy Maxwell, filed a multimillion-dollar civil rights lawsuit against Hempstead in 1999 that alleged negligent and illegal police actions caused his son’s death.

It claimed Hempstead police "grossly overreacted" and used excessive force by shooting Maxwell. The lawsuit also alleged the taser police used was negligently loaded or not properly tested — and used improperly — and therefore didn’t work on Maxwell.

In 2000, Maxwell’s father testified in federal court that the village failed "to appropriately train police for dealing with emotionally disturbed people." Later that day, he told Newsday: "I really want to vindicate my son’s name and see justice is done."

The lawsuit settled while the trial was underway, with an agreement that the village would pay $135,000 in damages and start a program to train officers in techniques for dealing with emotionally disturbed people.

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