A Hero Detective Forgave His Shooter. Life Wasn’t So Kind.
July 12, 1986. Detective Steven McDonald and his partner were on foot patrol, undercover, in New York’s Central Park when they confronted Shavod Jones and two friends about some random bicycle theft. Jones pulled out a revolver and shot McDonald at close range three times. The senseless, brutal act left his victim, 29, paralyzed from the neck down, a condition that lasted three decades until his recent death at 59.
In a super-human display of compassion — and belief in redemption — McDonald forgave the shooter after the baptism of his newborn son at the Roman Catholic chapel in the Bellevue Hospital. McDonald was on a respirator. His wife, Patti Ann, read the statement: “I’m sometimes angry at the teen-age boy who shot me. But more often I feel sorry for him. I only hope that he can turn his life into helping and not hurting people. I forgive him and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life.’’
The criminal justice system proved unforgiving of Shavod Jones. Jones was 15 years old at the time. His age was not a factor in his trial or punishment. Tried as an adult in criminal court, convicted, and sent to a state prison rather than a juvenile facility, Jones never was able to find the peace.
Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward visited Officer McDonald at Bellevue Hospital shortly after the shooting and then held a news conference calling for the death penalty. “Anyone who shoots a cop — anyone who shoots a policeman and is convicted — should be executed, and I’m willing to pull the switch myself,’’ he said. “If he is tried as an adult and he is 15, no problem at all.’’
Jones’s history of juvenile delinquency, violent behavior and mental health issues quickly became newspaper fodder. In his short life, Jones was known by countless New York government and social services agencies: Family Court, Criminal Court, State Supreme Court, the City Probation Department, the City Board of Education, the Children’s Aid Society, the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services and Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was a psychiatric patient for three months in 1983.
The Daily News reported that he was raised by his grandmother in the Taft public housing projects in East Harlem and placed in a special education class at nine. In 1984, he spent a year inside the Hawthorne Cedar Knolls School for emotionally disturbed youths in Westchester.
A New York Times story was called “Troubled Youth Resisted Treatment.” A more compassionate headline would have been “Treatment Failed Troubled Youth.”
Two months prior to the shooting, the youth plead guilty to armed robbery and was waiting placement in a facility for treatment. His grandmother kept reaching out to government agencies to help her grandson. Tragically, when he was arrested, Shavod was scheduled to be admitted to a residential center.
The McDonald shooting captivated the city. Robert Morgenthau, the New York District Attorney, held a news conference, calling the accused “A Walking Time Bomb.”
Morgenthau told the press that Jones would be tried as an adult, but sentenced under sharply restricted provisions for minors that allowed a maximum of 10 years in prison. He argued the law should be changed to allow juveniles who attempt to kill police officers to be sentenced under felony statutes that would allow a maximum of life in prison.
Coming out against a harsher punishment at the press conference was none other than Police Commissioner Ward. He told reporters that once he learned about Shavod Jones’s history, he changed his view in this case. “He fell through the cracks,’’ he said. Ward said he thought the system “should be more willing to give a second chance to someone like that.’’
Jones was convicted and sentenced to ten years in the New York State prison system. His accomplices, 13 and 14, were convicted in Family Court for their role in the assault and sentenced to three years in a juvenile home.
Basing fear-mongering on a remorseless kid — a monster without respect for human life — long predates the label “super predators.”
In 1978, New York Governor Hugh Carey read a Daily News story about a “Baby Butcher” — a 15-year-old Harlem boy who killed two men and shot a third on a New York City subway — and was outraged that Willie Bosket received a five-year sentence in a juvenile facility and promised reform. He was up for reelection.
It took just a few weeks for the legislature, in special session, to pass The Juvenile Offender Act. (For the definitive account of on Bosket and juvenile criminal justice read The Marshall Project story, “The Willie Bosket Case: How Children Became Adults in the Eyes of the Law.”)
One of the main provisions of the new law was that youth would be tried in adult courts. New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield called the legislation “a sharp reversal of 150 years of American history, the first break with the progressive tradition of treating children separately from adults.”
The pendulum swung back, courts and legislators recognizing that minors should not be tried and sentenced as adults. In 2005, the Supreme Court found it was is unconstitutional to sentence anyone to death for a crime committed while younger than 18, citing medical evidence and behavioral science studies that teenagers are too immature, their wiring still childlike, to be held accountable for their crimes like adults.
New York, however, continues to be the only state other than North Carolina that prosecutes all youth as adults when they turn 16 years of age. In his 2014 State of the State address, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed establishing the commission to “Raise the Age” and help to ensure young people become productive and successful adults. The commission was appointed. No legislation has yet passed.
In the summer of 1988, Detective McDonald sent stamps and a box of stationery to Jones in prison. The two corresponded and in 1990, Jones telephoned McDonald at his Long Island home. The tentative relationship, however, reportedly ended after McDonald turned down a request from the Jones family to assist in seeking the young man’s parole. Officer McDonald told a New York Times reporter, “I wasn’t knowledgeable enough or capable enough to help make that decision.”
At 25, Mr. Jones was released from prison and moved back to East Harlem. He was watched by parole officers — around the clock — waiting for him to violate the terms of his release, break curfew, or hangout with friends who were felons in order to put him back behind bars.
Three days after his release, Mr. Jones was riding on the back of a friend’s motorcycle when the driver did a stunt and crashed. Mr. Jones died the next morning from his injuries.
Friends told reporters that Mr. Jones wanted do something positive with his life, find a purpose, by giving inspirational speeches. McDonald, learning of the death, spoke from the heart. “Much of his life was spent suffering,” McDonald told The Daily News. “Now he is at peace and in heaven.”
The crowd filled St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Steven McDonald’s funeral service in early January and a sea of blue spilled down Fifth Avenue, mourners numbering into the thousands. He was honored as a hero, an NYPD icon, and a symbol of forgiveness.
Mr. Jones’s younger brother posted on Twitter: “Steven McDonald represents true forgiveness. May his honor and legacy live on as a testament for others to pattern their live choices by.”
The Daily News reported on the man McDonald forgave. EXCLUSIVE: Life was suffering for Shavod Jones, who died before he could redeem himself for Det. McDonald’s paralysis.”
The paper ran a photo of Mr. Jones from the time of his arrest, wearing a Trump Plaza baseball cap. Mr. Jones’s mother sent condolences to the McDonald family and her thanks for the hero cop’s efforts with her son. “I’m so sorry Detective McDonald passed away,” she said. “I was thinking of going to his funeral, but it would be too much. I’m sorry. It’s been so bad.”