Michael Jerome Stewart (1958, Brooklyn, New York – September 28, 1983, Manhattan, New York) was a graffiti artist who received recognition after his death following an arrest by New York City Transit Police for spray-painting graffiti on a subway station wall at First Avenue.[1] His treatment while in police custody and the ensuing trials of the arresting officers (all of whom were acquitted) sparked debate concerning police brutality and the responsibilities of arresting officials in handling suspects. The saga was a widely publicized episode in New York City's history of police brutality cases.

Word of the arrest came out on September 15, 1983, as the Committee Against Racially Motivated Police Violence was holding a news conference to publicize a Congressional hearing into complaints of police abuse. Stewart had been arrested earlier that day. He died at age 25, on September 28, after 13 days in a coma. The cause of death was listed as cardiac arrest.

Police report and medical reports

The police report related that Stewart was seen spray painting on a wall of First Avenue subway station (L train) in Manhattan at 2:50 AM on September 15, 1983. He became violent, struggled with officers, ran to the street, was beaten to unconsciousness. He was booked at the Union Square District 4 transit police headquarters for resisting arrest and unlawful possession of marijuana, then was transported to Bellevue Hospital Center to undergo psychiatric observation. Stewart arrived at Bellevue at 3:22 AM, handcuffed, legs bound and comatose with a blood alcohol content that was more than double the legal limit for drunken driving. He never regained consciousness. Attorneys for Stewart’s family described him as “a retiring and almost docile 135-pound young artist and a Pratt Institute student” who was on his way home to his Clinton Hill, Brooklyn neighborhood where he lived with his mother, Carrie, and father, Millard, who was a retired Metropolitan Transit Authority maintenance worker.

According to the city’s Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Elliot Gross’s preliminary autopsy report, Stewart’s injuries of facial bruises and abrasions on his wrists were not linked to his death, but that he died of heart failure following a heart attack that put him into a coma.[2] A physician who witnessed the autopsy on behalf of the family said his death had been caused by strangulation.[2] Eleven police officers were involved in the incident; all were white.[3]


A grand jury investigation was initiated in October 1983 to determine what happened to Stewart in the 32 minutes between being arrested and his delivery to the hospital.

On October 19, about 20 black community leaders, including City Councilwoman Mary Pinkett (D. Brooklyn), protested outside the Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau’s office at the Criminal Courts Building. Morgenthau refused to see the group stating that it would be inappropriate to comment before the case went to the grand jury in November 1983. The November 2 medical examiner’s final report from Dr. Gross differed from his preliminary report. Gross declined to state explicitly what caused the death, but reported that Stewart died of “physical injury to the spinal cord in the upper neck” and concluded that there were “a number of possibilities as to how an injury of this type can occur”.[4]

During the State Supreme Court five-month trial, some witnesses testified that Stewart was struck and kicked by officers while other witnesses said they did not see officers beat Stewart. None were able to determine who was responsible for Stewart’s handling and none were able to identify which officers took which actions at the arrest. Experts could not agree on what combination of injuries, Stewart’s intoxication and cardiac health ended his life. Seven months into the grand jury investigation, the case was dismissed because a juror, Ronald P. Fields, initiated private investigations on the case.

In February 1984, a second grand jury introduced the case before Justice George F. Roberts which indicted three officers, John Kostick, Anthony Piscola and Henry Boerner, with criminally negligent homicide, assault and perjury. Three other officers, Sgt. Henry Hassler, Sgt. James Barry and Susan Techky, who denied that they saw officers kick Stewart, were charged with perjury. In June 1985, jury selection began in State Supreme Court in Manhattan for the trial.

Prosecutor Morgenthau went to the second trial with two theories, one of neck injury leading to the death and the other that beatings caused cardiac arrest. Prosecutors pushed for second degree manslaughter to be charged if it was determined the officers recklessly caused the death. The jury was instructed that to support a charge of criminally negligent homicide, they had to find that the officers failed to take reasonable steps to prevent death. The prosecution hoped to establish a law requiring officers to “have an affirmative duty to protect prisoners in their custody from abuse”.[5]

William McKechnie, of the Transit Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, denied the officers' role in the death stating, “If someone dies of a heart attack, we are not doctors”.[6]

The New York Civil Liberties Union believed the second set of indictments signaled a new direction in how prosecutors treat police abuse cases. Richard Emery a lawyer for the NYCLU stated, “The theory underlining this case is perhaps the most important development in stemming the tide of police abuse. It makes police officers strictly responsible for their prisoners. It holds them accountable.”[6]

On November 24, 1985, the six officers were acquitted by an all-white jury.[3]

MTA reaction

In March 1987, the MTA, while critical of the 11 officers’ conduct, determined that only one officer, John Kostick, was subject to suspension based on departmental charges of perjury. The MTA Board approved additional training for transit officers in the handling of emotionally disturbed people and changed its policies on how the department’s internal affairs unit becomes involved with cases of possible misconduct.[7]

Family files civil suit

Also in 1987, the 11 officers and the MTA were charged with a $40 million civil suit filed by the Stewart family which prompted hundreds of off duty transit police officers to march along Madison Avenue in front of the MTA’s headquarters carrying signs reading “End the witch hunt” and “When are we finally innocent?”

In August 1990, Stewart's parents and his siblings John and Lisha Cole Stewart settled the civil suit out of court for $1.7 million. As of 1990, the police and city officials stated they were not to blame for the death of Michael Stewart.


Artists paid homage to Stewart including the death of Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, and in the song "Graffiti Limbo" penned by songwriter Michelle Shocked on herShort Sharp Shocked release. An extra verse she sings live is not on the album: "You see in order to determine that Michael Stewart was strangled to death / The coroner had to use Michael Stewart’s eyeballs, his eyes, as evidence, / So now when I tell you it was Michael Stewart’s eyes that the coroner lost / Do you know what I mean when I say that justice is blind."[8]

"Hold On" from Lou Reed's album New York contains the following line: "The dopers sent a message to the cops last weekend they shot him in the car where he sat. And Eleanor Bumpurs and Michael Stewart must have appreciated that."

Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat created Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) as a response to his death.[9][10]

For his 1985 Show at Tony Shafrazi gallery Keith Haring did a painting about the “slaying of Michael Stewart” titled “Michael Stewart – USA for Africa.” It depicts a black man being strangled while handcuffed to a skeleton holding a key. People from all nations drown in a river of blood below, while others shield their eyes from the scene, and the green hand of big money oversees the scene.[11][12]


  1. Jump up^

    Date Is Set for Officers' Trial In Death of Michael Stewart, The New York Times

  2. ^ Jump up to:a b

    Gruson, Lindsey (September 30, 1983). "Injuries of a Police Prisoner Did Not Kill, Autopsy Finds". The New York Times: II 2:1.

  3. ^ Jump up to:a b


  4. Jump up^

    Roberts, Sam (November 3, 1983). "Injury Reported In Death of Man After His Arrest". The New York Times: II 4:3.

  5. Jump up^

    "The Death of Michael Stewart, Cont." . The New York Times: I 22:1. February 23, 1984.

  6. ^ Jump up to:a b

    Chambers, Marcia (February 22, 1984). "6 Transit Officers Indicted in Death in Graffiti Arrest". The New York Times: A 11.

  7. Jump up^

    Levine, Richard (March 28, 1987). "M.T.A. Won't Charge 10 in Michael Stewart Case". The New York Times.

  8. Jump up^

    Blind Justice.

  9. Jump up^

    Jean-Michel Basquiat. Defacement, 1983, Acrylic and felt tip pen on wood.

  10. Jump up^

    Fretz, Eric. Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography. Greenwood Press, 2010.

  11. Jump up^

    Keith Haring. Michael Stewart – USA for Africa (1985) acrylic and oil on canvas, 305 x 458 cm.

  12. Jump up^

    Kolossa, Alexandra Keith Haring, 1958-1990 Taschen, 2004