Prosecutors on Saturday announced they would not charge two Sacramento police officers in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man in his grandmother’s backyard, saying video evidence showed the cops had a reasonable belief at the time that the victim had a weapon and threatened their lives.
After the shooting last March, emotions ran high when protests and rallies disrupted traffic and blocked access to NBA basketball games. At least one city council meeting was interrupted by protesters.
In a lengthy presentation to reporters, Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said the evidence – including video of the scene – showed that the victim, Stephon Clark, 22, was advancing on the two officers and was in a shooting posture when they opened fire.
Officers Terrance Mercadal and Jared Robinet both said they saw a light that appeared to be either a flash from the muzzle of the gun or light reflecting off of a firearm.
“We must recognize that they are often forced to make split-second decisions and we must recognize that they are under tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving circumstances,” Schubert said.
Clark, however, was not armed, but was carrying a cellphone at the time.
“Clearly we all know he didn’t have a gun,”Schubert said. “But the officers didn’t know that.”
Schubert’s recitation of the evidence included a detailed description of the contents of Clark’s phone call that showed he was upset over a domestic violence incident with his girlfriend, Selena, two nights before. It also showed that he had been trying to reconcile with her and had, at the same time, been searching the internet for information on how to commit suicide.
Schubert said the strains with Selena, the mother of his children, including her threats to notify his probation officer, prompted him to call her 76 times in the two days before the backyard fatal shooting.
At one point he drafted, but never sent, a text to law enforcement, “I’m pretty scared I’m going to be put in jail.”
Schubert said it was clear that the personal incidents “weighed very heavily on his mind.”
In addition, Schubert said a toxicology screen also showed that he had traces of Codeine, marijuana and Xanax in his body at the time of the incident.
Clark was shot seven times by police searching for a suspect smashing car windows in the area. Although the officers were not aware of it at the time, the prosecutor said evidence in the investigation showed that Clark had been the vandal.
Video from a sheriff’s department surveillance helicopter showed Clark jumping a fence into the yard moments before the shooting. Police were also not aware at the time that he had entered his grandmother’s yard.
Schubert said her role in the highly emotional case was simply to determine whether a crime had been committed by the officers, and the authorities determined that the answer was no.
“The evidence in this case demonstrates that both officers had an honest and reasonable belief that they were in imminent danger of death or great bodily injury,” Schubert wrote in a seven-page summary that accompanied the report. “Therefore, the shooting of Mr. Clark was lawful and no criminal charges will be filed.”
Clark’s family, including his two sons, his parents and his grandparents, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in January seeking more than $20 million from the city, Mercadal and Robinet, alleging that the cops used excessive force and that Clark was a victim of racial profiling.
One of the officers who shot Clark is black and the other is white, police said.
Regarding the potential reaction from the community, which had mounted angry demonstrations following the shooting last March, Schubert said she realizes many people will be upset at her findings, but she said the decision “does not diminish in any way the tragedy” of the loss of a human life.
“Stephon Clark’s death was a tragedy that has had a devastating impact on his family and our community,” Schubert wrote in a summary of the extensive report. “A young man lost his life and many lives have been irreversibly changed. No decision or report will restore Stephon Clark’s life.”
The two officers were initially placed on administrative leave after the shooting but were back on the job within a few weeks.
Although an independent autopsy ordered by Clark’s family determined that he was shot by police mostly from behind, a Sacramento County Coroner’s report conducted by a forensic pathologist found Clark had been shot once in the front of the left thigh, three times directly to the side, and three times in the right side of the back.
Clark didn’t immediately die from his wounds even though just one of the wounds could have been fatal on its own, said Dr. Bennet Omalu, who conducted the autopsy for the family.
Authorities have said several minutes passed before Clark was treated because of fears he was armed.
Black Lives Matter Sacramento tweeted Saturday that a protest was mounting at the police station. “MURDER IS MURDER! Stephon was stolen from his family! THERE ARE NO EXCUSES! WE DEMAND JUSTICE!!!! COME THRU NOW!!!!”
On Facebook, the local chapter of the activist movement posted that the protest is happening from 1 to 5 p.m. PST. “They murder us in our yards and on our streets and get away with it every single time! Let them feel us TODAY!”
So far, 131 people marked that they are going to attend and 187 others marked that they are interested.
Business owners and political leaders have received warnings in recent days to stay away from downtown at least through the weekend.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who delivered a eulogy at Clark’s funeral in 2018, tweeted support for the Clark family: “I just talked by phone w/ the grandmother of Stephon Clarke. He was unarmed and shot dead by Sacramento police last March. It’s a outrage!!”
In a follow-up tweet, Sharpton writes: “We must stand w/ Stephon Clark ‘s family and pursue justice. This young man’s life should not be marked worthless. Where’s accountability.”
Paramedics took Clark’s grandmother to the hospital on Saturday after the announcement was made that no criminal charges are being filed against the two officers, the Washington Post reports. She had been under extreme stress since Clark’s death in 2018, and the events of the day had been “too much,” a family friend told the Washington Post.
Sacramento Mayor Darrel Steinberg issued a statement saying that there “are safe zones available to families and young people looking for somewhere to go today to talk about their feelings following the #StephonClark decision.”
The mayor, who has served since 2016, tweeted, “I’m proud of the community leadership in @TheCityofSac for their heartfelt examination in recent weeks of how we can have both peace and justice.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and civil rights advocates are calling for reforms in the state’s criminal justice system.
“This must be a time for change,” Newsom said in a statement. “We need to acknowledge the hard truth – our criminal justice system treats young black and Latino men and women differently than their white counterparts. That must change,” Newsom said.
The American Civil Liberties Union tweeted, “We stand with the Clark family in calling on California legislators to act now to prevent more of these deadly tragedies – and subsequent miscarriages of justice – from happening.”
“No family should have to live through what Mr. Clark’s family is going through: first traumatized by a system of policing that violently and unjustly takes the lives of unarmed Black men at alarming rates and retraumatized again by a justice system that is set up to sanction these unnecessary killings,” Lizzie Buchen, legislative advocate for the ACLU of Northern California said in a statement.
Sequette Clark, the 22-year-old victim’s mother, spoke at a news conference Saturday afternoon, saying she doesn’t accept the prosecutors’ decision not to file charges.
“My faith in the justice system is what it has been. It’s not for us. It’s not for the black community,” Sequette Clark said.
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