California AG sees no grounds for charging police in black man’s killing

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – California’s top law enforcement official said on Tuesday an independent investigation by his office found no grounds to criminally charge two Sacramento policemen who shot an unarmed black man to death in his grandparents’ backyard last year.

FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California, U.S., March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong/File Photo

The findings announced by Attorney General Xavier Becerra agreed with the Sacramento County prosecutor’s own conclusion that the two officers had legitimate reason to believe the man, Stephon Clark, 22, posed a lethal threat to them.

The D.A.’s decision on Saturday not to prosecute the officers, who police said mistook Clark’s cell phone for a gun, has angered community activists and touched off three nights of protests in Sacramento, the state capital.

Becerra, speaking to reporters after a lengthy private meeting on Tuesday with members of Clark’s family, including his mother, said the 11-month probe by his office closes the criminal investigation of what he called a “tragedy.”

But the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, McGregor Scott, said later in the day that his office was opening a separate inquiry with the FBI into whether the shooting constituted a violation of Clark’s civil rights.

Becerra said his findings hinged largely on video from police cameras, which civil liberties activists and some law enforcement officials have advocated as crucial tool in bringing about police reforms.

But the chilling images captured in the footage, which sparked a furor over accusations of excessive police force, demonstrated how even black-and-white recordings of such events can be open to wide interpretation depending on the eye of the beholder.

Clark, a father of two, was killed on the night of March 18, 2018, in the backyard of his grandparents’ home in a hail of 20 bullets fired by the two officers responding to a report of someone smashing car windows on the street.

Becerra stressed that his investigation was requested by Sacramento’s police chief and conducted as a separate, independent examination of the evidence, rather than as a review of the police or prosecutors’ investigations. But the findings he outlined largely aligned with the conclusions announced on Saturday by District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert.

‘SHOWING US WHAT HAPPENED’

Becerra said investigators concluded that in addition to breaking car windows, Clark had broken the sliding glass rear door of a neighbor’s home before police confronted him and he disregarded commands to show his hands.

Video footage from the officers’ body cameras and a police helicopter flying overhead showed that after being cornered in the backyard, Clark suddenly moved toward the two policemen with something in his hand, and that there was glimmer of bright light the officers took for a muzzle flash, Becerra said. The precise source of the flash, and whether it came from Clark’s cell phone, remained unknown.

The two officers, Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet, opened fire only when Clark advanced on them and ceased fire when he stopped, Becerra said.

The sum of those facts, Becerra said, led to his conclusion that Clark’s death met the legal definition of a justifiable homicide because the two officers “reasonably believed” they were in “imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury.”

The attorney general said the “video evidence is critical” to understanding how and why the two policemen reacted the way they did. “It’s the video showing us what happened,” he said.

The release of the video in the immediate aftermath of the incident ignited two weeks of demonstrations in Sacramento last year and added fuel to the national debate over racial bias in the criminal justice system stemming from a string of police killings of unarmed black men in recent years.

FILE PHOTO: A man pauses at a sidewalk memorial to Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong/File Photo

Saturday’s decision not to prosecute the officers drew sharp criticism from local and national civil rights leaders.

“The decision to view the shooting of an unarmed man 20 times, with half of those shots in the back as a legal action, is inhumane and sickening,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson. “The decision by the D.A.’s office to refuse to value the lives of black people is a sham and shame on Sacramento and our nation.”

At her news conference on Saturday, Schubert said investigators had also determined that Clark was under the influence of the tranquillizer Xanax, alcohol and marijuana. Text messages showed he was possibly suicidal that night following a domestic violence incident involving the mother of both his children.

Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; editing by Frank McGurty, Richard Chang and James Dalgleish

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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