Bullet holes remind mother of son's last moments

For years after the shooting, Loretta Luke would sit in a chair on her front porch, puffing cigarettes and replaying the scene in her head.

Sometimes she’d wonder whether it really happened. Then, she’d cut her eyes to the left and answer herself.

“I guess it did because the bullet holes are still in the door.”

Her son was gunned down there, and she was consumed by thoughts about how she might have prevented his death.

First, the retired receptionist said, she never would have called the police. They’re the ones who killed him. Second, she would have ignored the officer’s command to get inside and close the door.

She would have let her son in.

Stanley Bates was among 20 people killed by DeKalb County police from 2001 to 2005. A dozen more fatal shootings in 2006 inspired protests and prompted District Attorney Gwen Keyes Fleming to open an investigation the following year. She focused on the 2006 cases but also re-opened the file on Bates last year.

In May, her office asked a grand jury whether the shooting was justified. The jurors deadlocked, voting 9-9, so Keyes Fleming dropped the case.

The events of that night show how quickly, and irrevocably, lives can change when an officer feels compelled to draw a gun. One man died, another lost his career and a mother lost her eldest child.

The vital facts are clear. Around 3 a.m. on Feb. 2, 2003, Bates had a knife and tried to enter Luke’s house, and Ofc. Alexander Brown shot him three times: twice in the right leg and a third, fatal, time in the lower back.

But there is disagreement over other details.

Brown told investigators that Bates turned on him and another officer.

In a federal court deposition three years after the shooting, Brown said he opened fire because Bates was coming at them fast, “and I felt that in a few more steps, he would’ve been directly on top of my partner with a knife raised.” He said he fired the third shot a split second after the first two, and that Brown was within the permissible range of 21 feet.

But investigators determined Bates was at least 30 feet away when Brown first pulled the trigger.

A police department review board split on whether the first two shots were warranted given the distance, but half the panel felt there was a risk of Bates entering the house.

The panel was unanimous on the third, fatal shot. Bates was already wounded and Brown approached him before firing, so that shooting was “negligent and careless,” they decided.

Brown was stripped of his badge and forced to resign.

He was unemployed for several months, until he found work as a warehouse laborer and then as a private security man. He eventually joined the Army and shipped overseas, leaving Luke with the memories of that night.

She kept the screen door with the two holes. It looks like a child poked a pencil through the mesh, but investigative reports said the 9 mm bullets drilled through it before they hit Bates, who was sandwiched between it and the front door.

“Son, did they shoot you,” Luke remembers shouting.

“Yes, Mother,” he replied. Then, she said, he grunted from the impact of the third shot.

And that was it.

Luke sank into depression. She quit her job and spent much of her time sitting on the white plastic lawn chair on her porch. She felt responsible for his death.

Bates had lived several lives in his 35 years. He was an Air Force mechanic and, despite a criminal record that included a 10-month stint in prison on a simple battery conviction, he work as an airport screener with the Transportation Security Administration.

He was also an artist, and Luke has turned her living room into a shrine of sorts, filling it with his Africa-themed bronze sculptures.

He lived by three names: “Stan the man” to his family, “Mr. Bates” to the people who called to buy his art and “pretty boy” to his drug friends.

Bates was addicted to crack cocaine and had been in and out of rehab for years. A toxicology report said he had cocaine in his system when he died.

His mother obtained a warrant for his arrest, she says, because she wanted him to sober up in jail.

When she swore out the warrant three days before his death, she complained that he broke into her house and took “anything that is not nailed down” to get drugs. On the night the police came, reports say, two 911 calls were placed from her house. The second call urged police to hurry because Bates was trying to break in.

Luke saw the two officers in her driveway, their guns drawn. She opened the door and heard shouts to drop the knife. She told them her son was harmless, but he was trotting toward her with the blade. An officer yelled at her to close the door.

And she did.

Then, the shooting started. She says now that she should have pulled him inside.

Luke has recovered from the depression, but her younger son, Frank, said she has become surly. The loss of Stanley unsheathed an aggressive edge.

“She’s very short-tempered,” Frank Bates said of his mother, who is 61. She was always an independent and strong woman, but now she hangs up the phone when they argue. “I understand though,” he said, “seeing something like that happen.”

A few years ago, a counselor told Luke that she didn’t kill her son and that soothed her. She learned a coping trick, too.

She sobbed gently as she explained: “If you admit to yourself that it happened, you can’t live. So you have to tell yourself it didn’t. There’s a portion of your brain that just has to say it didn’t.”

Luke is bitter that Brown hasn’t been prosecuted. She talks of a “racist” justice system.

Luke, who is black, believes this though the district attorney who re-opened the case at her request is black, though the man who killed her son is black and though a federal judge gave her a $7 million verdict against Brown.

He is stationed at Fort Drum in New York, and Luke said he is broke and hasn’t paid her anything. In a brief telephone interview, Brown said he’d been in Iraq, but he wouldn’t talk about the Bates case.

Luke is persistent. Some day, there will be another district attorney, she said. Then, she’ll push to have the case re-opened again.