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Police say Harvard killing was 'drug rip'

Student tied to suspect barred from graduating

By John R. Ellement and Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / May 23, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - A plot to rob a marijuana dealer inside a Harvard residence hall Monday went badly awry and ended with the shooting death of a 21-year-old Cambridge man, authorities said yesterday, as details began to emerge about two female Harvard students who knew both the victim and his alleged assailants.

Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr. said the botched "drug rip" that cost the life of the suspected dealer, Justin Cosby, centered on a pound of marijuana and $1,000 in cash that Jabrai Jordan Copney of New York and two others allegedly came to Cambridge to steal.

Copney, 20, was arraigned in Cambridge District Court yesterday and charged with first-degree murder, be ing an accessory after the fact of murder, and unlawful possession of a firearm. He pleaded not guilty and was ordered held without bail.

"The common denominator that led to the intent to rip off Justin Cosby of both money and drugs was that Justin and Jordan were known to each other through Harvard students," Leone told reporters.

Leone indicated that the men gained entrance to the dormitory because they had been provided an electronic-access card by one of the female students.

The killing inside an entranceway of Kirkland House was a rare intrusion of deadly street violence on the usually quiet academic enclave, and it prompted questions about drug use on the Harvard campus.

Harvard President Drew G. Faust said yesterday the case raises "serious concerns that require both serious reflection and action."

"We will need to ask ourselves difficult questions as an institution and as individuals - questions about our choices and their consequences, questions about how we can best enable Harvard to thrive as a safe and secure yet open and welcoming community," Faust said in a statement. She said she plans to work with students and faculty to address those questions.

Neither of the two unidentified Harvard women have been charged in connection with the shooting, but Leone said the investigation into the killing - and drug use on the Harvard campus and around it - remains ongoing.

A lawyer for one of the women said last night that the Brooklyn native and Kirkland House resident had been kicked off campus and barred from graduating next month. The lawyer, Jeffrey T. Karp of Boston, said his client was devastated by the school's decision to punish her even though she has not been directly implicated in Cosby's killing and has a solid academic record.

"This is a highly educated, independent young woman who has literally been cared for since she was a teenager by Harvard - and now they have terminated her right to be on campus," Karp said. "There is no justification for it. She may have known the people involved, but you know, it's not guilt by association in this country."

Karp declined to identify his client, who is holding out hope that she can be reinstated and graduate with her class on June 4. Karp does not represent the other student, whose circumstances were not immediately known.

A Harvard official with knowledge of the situation said the university had "taken appropriate steps regarding the students involved." The official, who did not want to be named because of the sensitive nature of the situation, declined to confirm the identities of the students or discuss specifics of the discipline, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.

Copney is a budding songwriter and a New York City resident whose longtime girlfriend is a Harvard senior, according to Copney's lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr.

"My client is shell shocked by these developments," Carney told reporters after the arraignment. "My client is not guilty of first-degree murder."

Authorities yesterday said this was not Cosby's first visit to campus, describing him as a marijuana dealer to Harvard students. Copney, apparently intent on robbing Cosby of drugs and money, arranged the meeting and brought two other men with him from New York, Leone said. Witnesses described hearing at least three shots, one of which struck Cosby in the abdomen. Cosby ran outside Kirkland and collapsed, with the drugs and money near his body. He died Tuesday at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

After the shooting, Copney was seen fleeing the dorm in an orange and black jacket, a gun in his hand, Middlesex Assistant District Attorney Daniel Bennett said at the arraignment.

Copney and the two men went to Lowell House, a nearby dorm, and disposed of the gun, prosecutors said. Authorities said they had recovered what they believe is the murder weapon.

The two other men, who remain unidentified, returned to New York City and were still at large yesterday, authorities said.

Copney, who turned himself in to Cambridge police Thursday evening, has been charged in connection with the killing but he has not been identified as the person who pulled the trigger.

Copney has no prior criminal history and lives with his sister and mother in New York City, according to Carney. His father is a retired New York City police officer and his mother is a New York City employee. In 2007, Copney graduated from a performing arts high school in New York City but he chose to forgo college to pursue a career as a songwriter, Carney said.

Writing music is "both a dream and a reality for this young man," Carney said, adding that his client has secured a contract to record an album of his own material.

Cosby's mother, Denise, attended the arraignment with a handful of other women and left without speaking to reporters. She could not be reached for comment at her home yesterday.

Harvard officials said the shooting would prompt them to revisit school drug and safety policies.

There "are important lessons to learn from this sad episode," Evelynn M. Hammonds, dean of Harvard College, wrote in a letter posted on the school's website. "I intend to work with student leaders and others to address the nature and risks of illicit drug use on campus . . . and to examine the adequacy of existing policies relating to student life."

Both the undergraduate handbook and the Harvard University Police Department guide to safety warn students that Harvard will not act as "protector or sanctuary" from city, state, and federal laws. Penalties range from loss of student loans to expulsion and prison.

But students say the reality is that those who choose to smoke marijuana do so with little fear of getting caught, calling the drug something that scarcely registers on the radar of university officials.

"It is definitely rare to hear of an instance in which you have severe disciplinary punishment that comes down related to marijuana," said J.P. Chilazi, president of Harvard's Drug & Alcohol Peer Advisors, a trained student group that provides outreach and education on alcohol and drug issues. "It's much more likely that it's going to be related to cheating or some sort of fight or vandalism."

Students interviewed in Harvard Yard yesterday said the killing was an abrupt, frightening interruption of life on campus.

"I just feel they brought their little world here for one hour, and it's unfortunate," said Natalie Peters, 22, from Missouri, who is graduating with a degree in biochemistry. She called the circumstances "surreal."

Andrew Ryan and Milton Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report.