It was a killing that outraged a city and later drew the attention of a president: A 12-year-old boy was shot in the head by a Dallas police officer playing Russian roulette with his service revolver in a patrol car.
The boy, Santos Rodriguez, who was Mexican American, had been handcuffed and interrogated by the white officer over the theft of $8 from a gas station vending machine, a petty crime that he maintained he had not committed. His older brother, David, who had also been placed in custody, watched from the patrol car’s back seat.
Now, 48 years later, the Dallas police chief has done something that his predecessors over the decades could not or would not do. He apologized on Saturday to Santos’s mother, Bessie Rodriguez, during a graveside memorial service marking the anniversary of the boy’s death.
“On behalf of the Dallas Police Department, as a father, I am sorry,” Chief Eddie Garcia told Ms. Rodriguez. “We are sorry that someone entrusted to protect you, someone who wore the same uniform that I proudly wear today took your son and took David’s brother away by way of murder.”
Ms. Rodriguez, 77, received a bouquet of flowers and a police escort to Oakland Cemetery, where friends and community members recalled a young life that had been cut short.
Chief Garcia was just a toddler when Santos was shot to death by Darrell Cain, the now-deceased officer who served just half of a five-year prison sentence after being convicted of murder with malice in connection with Santos’s death. But the chief, who was appointed this year and is the first Latino to lead the department, told Ms. Rodriguez, “This was the first history lesson that I got when I got here.”
The acknowledgment of culpability by the head of one of the nation’s largest police departments came amid a national reckoning over the use of deadly force by officers and institutional racism after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. It has prompted similar apologies from police leaders and elected officials for police brutality and other misconduct.
It was not the first time that a Dallas official had offered such an apology. In 2013, Michael S. Rawlings, who was mayor at the time, expressed his remorse over the killing, which had set off protests in the city.
Ms. Rodriguez could not be immediately reached for comment on Wednesday, but she told The Dallas Morning News after the service that Chief Garcia had been very respectful.
“I have to forgive to be forgiven,” she said.
In the early morning hours of July 24, 1973, officers responded to a gas station in what is now the Uptown section of Dallas after $8 had been stolen from a vending machine, according to accounts given by the police at the time.
After seeing some boys run from the area but losing them in the darkness, officers — who said that they had recognized them — went to the home of one of Santos’s relatives, with whom he and his brother had been living, and received permission to question the siblings.
While trying to coerce Santos into a confession, the authorities said, Mr. Cain pointed his .357 Magnum at the back of his head, pulling the trigger. But the chamber was empty. The second time he pulled the trigger, the weapon discharged, killing Santos.
“I don’t think that even the word assassinated is strong enough,” Frances Rizo, a community activist who spoke at the service on Saturday, said of Santos’s killing.
In an interview on Wednesday, Ms. Rizo said that there had only been two or three Latino officers in the Dallas Police Department at the time. She commended Chief Garcia for his apology.
“It took a Latino police chief to have the guts to come out and do it,” she said. “He brought Latino officers to the event as well.”
Two days after the shooting, The Morning News reported that fingerprints that had been taken at the gas station did not match those of Santos.
To the consternation of Bessie Rodriguez, the Justice Department declined to pursue federal civil rights charges against Mr. Cain, who died in 2019. It prompted her later to send a letter to President Jimmy Carter, who wrote back to her in 1978 that he understood her disappointment.
“I hope some measure of justice has been served by the vigorous state prosecution and the officer’s conviction of murder with malice,” Mr. Carter wrote. “In the end, I realize no action could ever compensate for the needless loss of life. The grief which you feel is shared by all of us.”
Mr. Cain had previously been charged in the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old Black man, but a grand jury did not return an indictment against him.
In Dallas, a recreation center has been named after Santos, and a memorial statue for him is nearing completion.
“I realize that we have not healed yet as a city from the loss of Santos and the manner in which we lost Santos,” Chief Garcia said. “In order to heal, those who have committed the wrong must be contrite.”