Bertha Arriaga, Davell Gardner Jr., and Ethan Williams were killed by “stray bullets.” Than Than Htwe, Nicolo Rappa and Tessa Majors were killed in “botched robberies.” As violent crime has soared, such language has become ubiquitous in news stories. It is lazily inaccurate — and absolves killers of responsibility.
Gotham shootings have more than doubled in two years, to more than four people wounded and one killed a day. In tandem, the term “stray bullet” has, er, strayed into more news reports. The New York Times has used it 42 times since January 2020, nearly double the 24 mentions in the similar period pre-COVID.
Davell, the 1-year-old baby “hit by a stray bullet at a barbecue” in Bedford-Stuyvesant last year. Arriaga, in her own apartment in Jackson Heights when “a stray bullet killed her.” Williams, the college student killed in Bushwick when “a stray bullet struck.”
Among the latest victims is a 19-year-old New York University student, wounded near the MetroTech campus last week by, as NYU said, “a stray bullet.” NYU pronounced itself “concerned about the occurrence of a shooting so near one of our buildings,” which raises the question: Where would NYU like the shootings to “occur”?
There is no such thing as a “stray bullet.” Each of these individuals was killed or wounded by a person who purposely shot a gun in a dense city, often at night.
The shooter knew there was a risk that the bullet would hit an “innocent victim” (another inaccurate term, as all shooting victims are innocent of whatever they are being shot for).
Saying someone was killed or wounded by a bullet that mysteriously strayed from its carefully planned trajectory is like saying someone was killed by being clonked in the head by a big hailstone. It was just an act of nature, couldn’t be helped.
“Botched robbery” is worse. When a stranger allegedly yanked Kyaw Zaw Hein by his backpack down the stairs in a Canal Street subway station in July, Hein’s mother, Htwe, was pulled with him, and suffered a fatal brain injury. “The police called the crime a botched robbery,” the Times says.
But nobody “botched” anything: If you pull people down stairs, there is a good risk they will fall and suffer a horrific injury.
Then there’s 91-year-old Rappa, killed in a “botched home-invasion robbery” last month. Police say Luis Bonilla tried to wheedle his way into Rappa’s home. But when the elderly man didn’t let him in, Bonilla beat him to death. What was “botched”? The killing was intentional.
Similarly, when three teens killed Tessa Majors in Morningside Park in December 2019, the Times called it “a cellphone robbery gone wrong.”
What went wrong? The teens purposely targeted a woman smaller than they were, held her down and repeatedly stabbed her in the chest. There was no well-laid plan that somehow went awry, despite everyone’s best intentions.
The term “botched” is often heard in such group robberies, with one killer using it to say that he never meant to kill anyone; his partners in crime screwed up a harmless caper.
The most absurd example is the reporting around former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s granting clemency to David Gilbert, part of the gang that killed Edward O’Grady and Waverly Brown, both police officers, and guard Peter Paige, in the 1981 Brink’s robbery near Nyack.
The San Francisco Chronicle, where Gilbert’s son is DA, calls it the “botched robbery” of an armored truck. Gilbert was an “unarmed getaway driver,” the paper informs us, “not directly responsible for the killings.” Gilbert’s son, Chesa Boudin, has said that his father “never . . . intended for anyone to get hurt.”
This “I knew my friends had knives or guns, but I never expected them to hurt anyone” defense is phony. Gilbert knew his accomplices were heavily armed. What did he think would happen?
The credible threat of deadly force is the only reason why armed robberies “work” at all. That victims often are shot or stabbed to death during them is not an unforeseeable error, but the predictable result of the mortal danger armed robbers intend to convey.
This isn’t just a matter of language. Empty-the-jails advocates don’t like getaway accomplices to be charged with murder, as Gilbert was. But lenient treatment for accomplices ignores the fact that the getaway driver is just as necessary to the killing as the shooter.
If crime continues to rise, we can expect more “botched robberies” and “stray bullets.” It was nobody’s fault; it just happened.
*story by The New York Post