The four killers of a rookie Irish American NYPD officer in 1988 are up for parole before the end of this year, but if the late Edward Byrne’s family and many supporters have their way the assassins will spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
The city and country was stunned by the murder of Byrne, 22, in the early hours of February 26 as he patrolled a home in Jamaica, Queens owned by a family due to testify against local drug gangs. Byrne was on guard outside the home in an NYPD car when one of the perpetrators distracted him while another shot five bullets into his head. Two others who also confessed their guilt in the shocking crime acted as lookouts.
Sentencing guidelines at the time allowed the judge to impose a maximum term on each of 25 years to life, with parole hearings due every two years after the minimum sentence was served. Now that time is approaching, and the Byrne family is outraged.
“It was such a terrible crime,” Edward’s brother Larry Byrne, a litigation partner with the global law firm Linklaters based in New York, told the Irish Voice.
“The judge said if there was a harsher sentence at the time he would have imposed it. He said they should never get parole, and he’s one of the many who will be writing letters to the Parole Board urging that these guys never get out.”
Byrne, a former federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York and deputy chief of the Organized Crime division at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., is adamant that the killers should never be released. Though it seems extremely likely that the New York State Board of Parole will agree this time around, what deeply concerns the Byrne family is that parole hearings will take place every two years, and future board members might maintain that the killers – all in their twenties when they committed the murder – served enough time.
“Every two years we’ll have to go through this,” Byrne said. “This Parole Board today can influence, but it can’t determine what a board can do in 20 or 30 or 40 years.
“Someone on the board 20 or 30 years from now will never have hard of Eddie Byrne, wouldn’t know how dangerous the city was in the 1980s, and would have been born long after my brother was killed. That’s why this first hearing is so important, because all future boards will have to consider the record from the first hearing.”
A host of top politicians, including Senator Charles Schumer and former Mayor Ed Koch, who was mayor at the time of the assassination, have called for the killers to never receive parole. Members of the public can also lend their support to the effort, Byrne says.
An online petition has been posted by TV station WPIX. Members of the public can also write a letter to the New York State Department of Correction and Supervision.
“Everybody’s voice counts,” says Byrne. “Everybody can remind the board about what a terrible crime this was.”
The killing was a huge story when it happened. The city streets were much more dangerous, and horror spread throughout the country that a young cop could be so callously murdered in cold blood.
President Ronald Reagan reached out to the family, and his White House successor George H.W. Bush campaigned with Byrne’s badge in his pocket. More than 10,000 police officers from around the U.S. and the world attended his funeral, which to this day remains the largest NYPD funeral ever.
“Eddie was a great guy,” Byrne said of his brother. “He played high school football, always wanted to be a cop like our dad, liked hanging out with his friends. He was a very energetic kid. But he didn’t get to live his life, unfortunately.”
The Byrne family’s paternal grandparents came to the U.S. in the 1920s from WicklowTown. Larry and his brothers grew up with a profound sense of Irishness, with family members traveling back and forth between Ireland and the U.S. for summer vacations. A tree was planted and a plaque placed in Eddie’s honor in St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin.
Eddie was determined to follow his dad into the NYPD, and father and son were close. Both of Byrne’s parents are alive and live on Long Island, where they raised their four sons.
“My father would always say to Eddie as he left for work, ‘Have a safe tour,’” Byrne recalled. “But that February night he didn’t have a safe tour.”
A dreaded knock on the door of the Byrne home came at 5 a.m. the morning their son was murdered. It was a NYPD officer and chaplain delivering the horrific news.
“It’s never good news at that hour,” Byrne says. “My parents were hoping that Eddie had been injured, but that turned out not to be the case. It’s one of the great myths that time heals these things, but time never heals that kind of loss. A parent should never have to bury a child.”
The killers made videotaped confessions and bragged about gunning down a cop. They were easily captured days after the murder in the biggest manhunt that the NYPD ever conducted, partly because they “celebrated” their crime with so many others.
“One guy described vividly how they stood there over the car they killed my brother in, and laughed about what they had done. Then they all went out to celebrate and have a big meal, and they all went out and treated themselves to victory gifts,” Byrne says.
Though the trauma will remain with Byrne and his family for the rest of their lives, he is quick to point out that his brother’s killing is one of the reasons why New York City is today a much safer place than it was back in the 1980s when drug and gun crime was much more rampant.
“Today we live in one of the largest safe cities, and there’s no question in my mind that one of the catalysts that made that happen was what happened to my brother,” says Byrne.
“It caused people to stand up and say, if a cop in uniform with a gun in a police car can be assassinated then none of us are safe, so we have to do something about this.”
The football field at Plainedge High School has been renamed in Eddie’s honor, as has a public school in the Bronx. A federal law enforcement program, the Edward Byrne Awards Program, has given millions of dollars to local police departments to buy equipment to fight gangs and drugs.
“That gives my parents some comfort, some peace of mind,” Byrne says.
What will further ease their pain is a positive outcome from the Parole Board. The Byrne family is due to appear before the board next month, and each of the four killers, scattered throughout New York State in various prisons, will also have a hearing. A final ruling is expected by March of next year.
“There’s something very strong the Parole Board can do. They can say if you use a gun to kill someone you are going to spend the rest of your life in prison, and we are never going to let you out,” Byrne says.
“And when that message gets out maybe people will stop using guns to kill people.”
(A letter recommending life in jail without parole for defendants David McClary, Ind. No: 1662/88, NYSID# 06077561Y, DIN# 89-A-7511; Defendant Scott Cobb, Ind. No: 1662/88, NYSID# 04477037K, DIN# 89-A-6910; Defendant Todd Scott, Ind. No: 1662/88, NYSID# 05620912Q, DIN# 89-A-8015; Defendant Phillip “Marshall” Copeland, Ind. No: 1662/88, NYSID# 05615688H, DIN# 89-A-5229 can be sent to the NYS Department of Correction & Community Supervision, The Office of Victim Assistance, The Harriman State Campus Building 2, 1220 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12226-2050.)