Who Killed Maria Barone?

by Elaine Greene Weisburg

After serving seven or eight times on New York County trial juries over the years, I was called to Grand Jury duty in the late spring of 1988. This was a welcome prospect because I was free-lancing at home for a national magazine–a solitary endeavor with not enough assignments to occupy me fully.

In the county clerk’s office I was interviewed and fingerprinted and then after a few weeks was summoned to appear on June 20 for a month’s service, meeting daily from 2 till 5 p.m. On our first day I was excited to learn that evidence on one homicide would take up the entire month. It had to be a big story and indeed it was—I had seen it on page one of the tabloids.

Between 1:30 and 2:00 in the morning on April 27, Maria Barone, age 32, a wife and mother from Fairview, New Jersey, had been driving alone in East Harlem. When she ran a red light at 118th Street and First Avenue, NYPD Sgt. Jack O’Brien saw the infraction from his patrol car and moved to stop her but she sped away. A cinematic car chase ensued covering a square mile and lasting almost ten minutes. Several of the police officers who testified mentioned that Maria Barone was an unusually good driver and her pursuers became more and more numerous. By the time she was cornered under the Metro North Railroad tracks at Park Avenue and 124th Street by nine police radio cars from two precincts, she had minutes left to live. After a month of testimony from 38 witnesses on the possible culpability of six police officers, we knew how she died and who was to blame.

The job of a grand jury as set forth in our national and state constitutions is to decide one thing only: should an individual be indicted, which means charged with a serious crime. The proceedings are not open to the public and are not a trial; defense attorneys are not present. The jury consists of 23 people, a majority of whom must agree on the finding. Jurors are strongly cautioned not to talk about the case outside the jury room [thus these names have been changed]. When I asked permission to take notes, I was told that I could but I would not be allowed to remove them from the custody of the court. I decided just to listen and at this stage of my life, long after college, I learned that I remember better if I do not take notes.

I viewed my responsibility seriously but it was also major entertainment. The case absorbed me like a television police procedural or a suspense novel. I couldn’t wait for each day’s revelations. The fatal event was reconstructed one witness at a time by a very smart ADA (Assistant District Attorney)—a woman in her thirties. She was our Scheherazade, a narration builder more expert than any I had ever seen as a trial juror, leading us to an inevitable conclusion.

The Medical Examiner came first, to establish the death and the five bullets that caused it. He also testified to the presence in the victim’s body of enough cocaine and heroin in addition to methadone and Valium to have caused an overdose reaction in many people. Another expert witness testified about the condition of her car. Street witnesses described their random views of the chase and the fatal fusillade. They were bit players, some unforgettable like the passerby who added to my vocabulary. This young savvy blue-collar New Yorker described squealing brakes as the patrol cars converged on Maria’s with all their “whoopee lights” flashing. The ADA had to ask him to define whoopee lights and I have never seen this aggressive rooftop display again without thinking of their street name.

Six uniformed policemen were subject to indictment. Five had shot the victim at close range. Each recounted his part of the chase and its conclusion. All five thought Maria Barone had a gun herself and that she had fired it during the chase. All had heard one of their fellow officers shout, after Maria was ordered out of her car, “She’s reaching for it.” All thought that “it” was her gun.

Of the five I best remember one of the two Irish-Americans among the shooters, The Irish poet as I thought of him. After the shooting he had requested a medical leave from work; the others were on desk duty until the Grand Jury proceedings concluded. One of the jurors, with permission from the ADA, asked him why he couldn’t work. “Because I shot an unarmed woman,” he answered. We already knew that he had a fragmentary connection with her. He had testified that during the chase his car and Maria’s briefly stopped side by side with their windows adjacent and there was a moment’s eye contact. “She had very beautiful eyes,” he told the jury. To me this was the most personal detail of all the testimony.

A very different Irishman, Sgt. Jack O’Brien was the sixth uniformed police officer whose responsibility for a civilian death was our concern. He was not only a loose cannon but was deeply dishonest. After he started the chase, it was he who shot three times at Maria’s tires although it is a well-known violation of police department rules to fire a gun to stop a car. Only O’Brien’s partner knew he had done so. When the sergeant radioed his station that gunshots were heard, he did not say that he was the source. In the aftermath of the killing, the sergeant surreptitiously borrowed three fresh cartridges from a fellow policeman so that he could hand the departmental investigators a fully loaded gun. His cover-up failed—too many others knew what he had done.

Before we deliberated, Sgt. O’Brien was given permission to address us. He told us that his wedding had been postponed because of this occurrence and his mother had had a heart attack. He asked for our consideration. We indicted him by a large majority for tampering with evidence in an attempt to conceal his role in the killing. We did not indict the five policemen whose bullets killed Maria Barone. It was O’Brien who caused her death.

There was one other, innocent cause, a poignant detail I learned when I picked up the autopsy report that was lying on the ADA’s desk for anyone to read. What I learned never came up in testimony, wasn’t needed for a just decision, and more than anything makes my heart still ache for poor Maria Barone, who will never complete her drug rehabilitation program, never reclaim her young son being brought up in Italy by her parents.

The report describes her body and notes that her fingernails and toenails were freshly polished. This addicted woman still kept up appearances and tried to look like a lady. It also describes the clothing she was wearing. She had on blue jeans and they were unzipped. When I read that, I knew the whole story. Poor Maria, her pants were tight and she was driving with them open. But she had to get out of her car in front of a large group of men so she reached to zip them up. And the fusillade hit her.

For more than three decades Elaine Greene Weisburg was an editor-writer at House & Garden and House Beautiful. Although also a memoirist, she only dared to try poetry in an IRP class.