From Freddie Gray in Baltimore who ran away from police officers to Jonathan Ferrell who ran towards Charlotte police officers for help, five trials of on duty police officers for killing unarmed victims will likely take place in 2015.
On Wednesday, August 19, a Fairfax, Virginia judge set December 14, 2015 as the trial date for former officer Adam Torres accused of shooting and killing John Geer in August, 2013 at his home for a domestic dispute call. In an unusual legal move for police officers, a Fairfax County judge denied bail for Torres—a move that caused the defendant to faint in the court room. Prosecutors refused to offer a plea bargain to Torres—a move that signifies the case will likely head to trial. Although the killing occurred two years ago, the county police initially refused to turn over necessary information on Torres to prosecutors–causing a delay in bringing charges.
The case of the six Baltimore police officers charged on May 1, 2015 with assault and manslaughter in the death of Freddie Gray starts October 13, 2015 with motions hearings scheduled for September 2. Gray was found unconscious after being placed in a police van. He died one week later of severe spinal injuries allegedly as a result of being unrestrained in the police van. Almost as important as the trial date is the motions hearings date where the judge’s rulings will determine crucial decisions concerning evidence in the case, location of the trial and other issues. Motions filed by the defense lawyers contend that the defendants will not receive a fair trial if the trial is held in Baltimore. A fair and impartial jury is possible in Baltimore City as rulings in other high profile cases prove. The recent cases of the Boston Bomber and Aurora Colorado theater shooting case were held in their respective jurisdiction—despite the high publicity and number of persons killed and injured in those cases. Baltimore and the ability to obtain fair and impartial jurors is no different from Boston and Aurora.
A judge set November 4, 2015 as the trial for University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing who fatally shot unarmed Samuel Dubose in July in a matter of seconds following a routine traffic stop. The police dash cam caught the incident on camera. Tensing’s lawyers plan to file for a change of venue despite acknowledging that a change of venue rarely occurs in Hamilton County. Tensing is expected to argue that Dubose caused him to fear for his life.
A Charlotte jury is deliberating the police officer charged with manslaughter in the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell. Randall Kerrick shot Ferrell ten times as Ferrell ran towards the officer and two other officers for help following an accident and after knocking on a house door for help. Like in most police officer shootings, the jury must decide if excessive force was used or reasonable force. The other two officers present with Kerrick did not shoot. They also did not testify. And like many on duty police killings, the defense blamed the victim. That is also an expected defense in the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore.
Former North Charleston officer Michael Slager faces murder charges for the April shooting of Walter Scott eight times in the back while running away for a routine traffic stop. His actions were caught on video tape by a bystander. While no trial date has been set yet, an August 27 hearing on Slager’s bond has been scheduled. He remains in custody awaiting trial.
A judge ruled on Tuesday that two Albuquerque, New Mexico police officers will go to trial for the 2014 murder of James Boyd, a homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia. As with the case of Slager, there is video of the shooting. Boyd appeared to be surrendering following a hours long stand-off with the officers. Boyd like Freddie Gray died later at a hospital.
These on duty police killing cases vary in terms of race of the victims, location, how death occurred, charges, video and other factors. Their common denominator is all victims were unarmed. If these cases prove anything, it’s the need for increased and better police training in areas of confrontation, mental illness, domestic violence, race sensitivity and when the use of force is unwarranted. Despite the number of police officers facing trials in 2015, they pale in comparison to the large number of persons who die at the hands of police every year. There must be universal reform in how police departments conduct business. If not, many more unarmed persons will continue to die at the hands of police.
UPDATE: On August 21, the manslaughter trial of officer Randall Kerrick for the death of Jonathan Ferrell ended with a deadlock jury of 8-4 in favor of acquittal. No decision on whether to retry Kerrick.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former Baltimore prosecutor.