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Two officers who shot and killed a 22-year-old black man in the backyard of his grandmother’s home, mistaking a cell phone in his hand for a gun, will face no legal repercussions, prosecution said, ruling the use of force lawful.
The shooting of Stephon Clark by police in Sacramento, California last year saw mass protests sweep the city, disrupting road traffic, a city council meeting, and even delaying several basketball games as police struggled to quell the tensions. The protests spilled over to New York and garnered support from Black Lives Matter.
In a much-awaited announcement on Saturday, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said that the two police officers implicated in Clark’s death would not be facing any charges.
“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“
In an hour-long press conference, Schubert justified her decision not to file any charges against Terrance Mercadal and Jared Robinet, referring to the bodycam and helicopter police videos from the scene, accounts given by the witnesses, an initial 911 call alerting police to a suspected car burglary, multiple evaluations of Clark’s autopsy report, and his cell phone history.
In her description of the moment of the shooting, Schubert upheld the police version of events. She said that the bodycam video suggests that Clark’s arms “were extended in a shooting stance” and the officers saw a flash, which one mistook for the metallic glint of a gun and the other thought was the muzzle flash of a shot.
She said that prior to the standoff with police in the backyard of his grandparents’ home, Clark had been seen smashing a glass door in a nearby yard, and DNA test results confirmed his identity.
Schubert also revealed Clark had another brush with the law just days before his passing: the mother of his children had filed a domestic violence report with the police two days prior.
His message and web-search history revealed that Clark looked up ways to commit suicide after she told him he would never see the children again.
Clark’s postmortem toxicology report showed traces of a cocktail of powerful stimulants and anti-anxiety drugs in his body, including Xanax, codeine, marijuana, cocaine, alcohol and semi-synthetic opioid hydrocodone.
Clark’s postmortem has become a source of widespread controversy, after two autopsies – one conducted by the authorities and the other commissioned by Clark’s family – came to different conclusions. Dr Bennet Omalu, who conducted the autopsy on behalf of Clark’s family, stated that out of the 20 shots the officers fired during the showdown, seven bullets entered the man’s body from behind, each of them deadly.
The official autopsy disputed that conclusion, with Sacramento county coroner saying that Clark appeared to have been shot while moving towards the police officers, and alleging that Omalu had mixed up entry and exit wounds.
The prosecutor’s decision to throw out the charges against the officers has elicited an angry outcry on Twitter, with some saying that much of the ‘evidence’ presented by Schubert at the press conference is irrelevant to the case, but serves to cast Clark in bad light.
“I don’t understand. If the Stephon Clark officers can only be judged on what they knew, why is the entire press conference about Clark’s background that they didn’t know?” a commenter wrote.
Others pointed to the Californian authorities’ vast record of going light on officers involved in deadly shootings.
The Sacramento Bee reported that Schubert has issued a total of 33 reports on officer-involved shootings, having determined in 32 cases that the use of force was “lawful,” dismissing one as lacking sufficient evidence to proceed.
Apart from sparking mass protests over police brutality and racial profiling, Clark’s death inspired a proposed overhaul of police guidelines as to when officers can use deadly force against suspects. However, the initial bill stalled, and the new one proposing a change from “reasonable” to “necessary” regarding when an officer may resort to deadly force, faced fierce opposition from law enforcement.