Charlotte District Attorney Andrew Murray presented medical examiner slides, surveillance video and other police evidence in discussing why no charges were filed against CMPD Officer Bentley Vinson in the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. Justine Miller jmiller@mcclatchy.com
Charlotte District Attorney Andrew Murray presented medical examiner slides, surveillance video and other police evidence in discussing why no charges were filed against CMPD Officer Bentley Vinson in the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. Justine Miller jmiller@mcclatchy.com

Charlotte Shooting Protests

District attorney exonerates officer, denounces rumors in killing of Keith Scott

By Michael Gordon, Mark Washburn, Ames Alexander and Fred Clasen-Kelly

mgordon@charlotteobserver.com

November 30, 2016 10:58 AM

UPDATED December 01, 2016 10:49 AM

In an emphatic declaration, Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray said Wednesday he found no legal wrongdoing in the shooting death of a Charlotte man by police, and denounced pervasive rumors spread by social media about the case.

Murray laid out in painstaking detail the evidence gathered in the Sept. 20 fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, 43, by officer Brentley Vinson.

“I’m extremely convinced that Mr. Vinson’s use of deadly force was lawful,” Murray said.

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Evidence in the case shows that Scott stepped out of his SUV with a gun in his hand, Murray said, and ignored at least 10 commands from the five officers on the scene to drop it.

Murray said that Scott bought the gun – a Colt .380 semi-automatic that had been stolen in Gaston County – 18 days before the confrontation for $100. One bullet was found in the chamber of the cocked gun, the safety was off and Murray said Scott’s DNA was found on the grip and slide.

The person who sold the gun to Scott admitted to doing so when confronted by state and federal law enforcement, according to a prosecutor’s report on the shooting. “The seller said that Scott asked him to find him a weapon because he was having problems with his wife and her family, specifically his nephew,” the report said.

Murray said that speculation in the community that Scott was unarmed – initial reports from a family member on Facebook said he was holding a book – were untrue.

“A reading book was not found in the front or back seats of Mr. Scott’s SUV,” Murray said.

Officer Vinson’s Smith & Wesson M&P .40 was examined after the shooting and four bullets were missing, Murray said. Analysts determined that the four shell casings found on the scene were fired from Vinson’s weapon. Scott suffered three gunshot wounds. Guns taken from the other officers at the scene had not been fired, he said.

People who claimed on social media that they had seen the shooting and Scott was unarmed later recanted – three people who’d made the claim told State Bureau of Investigation agents in interviews that they hadn’t actually seen the shooting, Murray said.

Murray said he ran the evidence in the case past 15 veteran prosecutors in his office and they were unanimous in their recommendation that there was insufficient evidence to charge Vinson in the case. Two of those prosecutors were African-American and one was Latino, Murray said.

In the aftermath of Scott’s death, Charlotte was roiled by two nights of rioting and nearly a week of street demonstrations. After street violence, dozens of arrests and the death of one man in uptown, Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency.

CMPD was the original agency investigating Scott’s shooting, but the SBI took over when his wife, Rakeyia Scott, exercised her right under N.C. law to have the independent agency do the inquiry.

Scott, father of seven, a former shopping mall security officer and the son of a police detective, suffered from traumatic brain injury sustained during a motorcycle crash in South Carolina in November 2015.

Medical records obtained during the SBI inquiry showed that Scott had difficulties with aggression and anger management.

“Scott was battling an array of psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety, hallucinations and paranoia,” the report said. “Two weeks prior to his death, Rakeyia Scott told her husband’s therapist that his temper and impatience had increased, and as she stated, ‘something has to give.’”

Scott was a convicted felon who was sentenced in 2005 to seven years in prison in Texas for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

City’s reaction

Neither Mayor Jennifer Roberts nor Police Chief Kerr Putney commented about the findings, but the city of Charlotte released a statement:

“We recognize that for some members of our community, this news will be met with different reactions. No matter where you stand on the issue, the events surrounding the Scott shooting have forever changed our community, and we intend to learn from and build a stronger Charlotte because of it,” the statement said.

“The city is committed to continuing its work with the community to preserve safety, trust and accountability.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police were put on alert for the community’s reaction to the announcement.

All the department’s specialized units, including its riot squad, were mobilized. CMPD’s command center, which was used during the 2012 Democratic National Convention and other high-profile events, also was activated.

Officers were notified that they may have to work 12-hour shifts.

Murray met Wednesday morning with Rakeyia Scott and Charles Monnett, an attorney representing the family. “The family was very gracious,” Murray said.

Monnett and other attorneys representing the family said that CMPD’s handling of the confrontation was flawed.

“We believe this situation....could have ended with everyone alive,” Monnett said. “We look forward someday to obtaining justice for this family.”

He also said it still wasn’t clear whether officers had been properly trained or followed departmental policy when they confronted Scott.

Social media reports

Murray said that rumors and social media reports about the case did not stand up to scrutiny, among them: That Scott was unarmed, that he was holding a book not a gun, that he didn’t own a weapon, that other officers at the scene shot Scott besides Vinson.

Rakeyia Scott gave statements after the shooting, Murray said, that her husband did not have a gun. She has maintained that he did not have a firearm after January 2016, though Murray said the two had quarreled over text messages in the weeks before the shooting about his gun.

In all, 63 SBI agents were assigned to the investigation, about a quarter of the agency’s force, Murray said.

In laying out a timeline of the shooting, he said officers were staked out in the parking lot of Scott’s apartment complex looking for a suspect in an unrelated case. They saw Scott pull in, then leave.

Murray then showed a surveillance video from a nearby 7-Eleven store of Scott walking in. Murray said there was a bulge clearly visible at the right ankle where Scott holstered his gun.

Then, Murray said, Scott returned to the parking lot next to the officers, hollowed the tobacco out of a cigarello and began stuffing what appeared to be marijuana into it from a pill bottle.

Only when Vinson saw Scott hold up a semi-automatic pistol did officers decide to confront him, Murray said. Vinson and another officer drove away, put on tactical vests labeled “Police” and called for other officers to help them and a marked police SUV with a uniformed officer.

When they arrived, they blocked Scott’s SUV and called on him to come out, then told him at least 10 times to drop the gun, Murray said.

“Mr. Scott did not comply with those commands,” Murray said.

Scott held the gun in his hand, though he didn’t raise it, Murray said. Officers said in interviews with investigators that Scott appeared to have a blank stare and was in a trance-like state, Murray said.

Vinson fired four shots, wounding Scott three times. When Scott fell, his gun landed near his waist and one of the officers pushed it away from him, then stood over it, Murray said.

Gun is key fact

Robert Taylor, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas and a former police officer in Portland, Ore, said clearing Vinson of any criminal wrongdoing in the shooting was an easy call.

A person with a gun under those circumstances is a danger to officers and the public, Taylor said. “This is pretty cut and dry,” he said.

Now, he said, Charlotte leaders must try to rebuild the fractured relationship between the police department and the African-American community.

“I try to stay positive and remind people that before any great change in this country there has been conflict,” Taylor said.

“There are real feelings of fear in the African-American community. You have to build trust over a long period of time. You just can’t wait until something else happens ... The onus is on the police department to take a positive approach and look for what good can come out of this. Where do we go as a community?”

Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and nationally known police accountability expert, said it was always unlikely that Vinson would be criminally charged.

Nationwide, few officers face legal consequences following police shootings, Walker said. Even when they are charged, judges and juries usually exonerate them, he said.

Prosecutors are reluctant to bring cases against officers, Walker said, because they depend on a cooperative relationship with police to do their jobs.

“Chances of increasing the number of prosecutions is very low,” Walker said. “These are people you know. That’s tough. Then they start calculating the odds of getting a conviction. It’s pretty low.”

Jury’s view

Darrel Stephens, former CMPD chief and executive director of the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, said Murray’s decision seems to validate CMPD’s account of the confrontation.

The department maintained from the beginning that Scott was holding a gun and that he failed to follow commands, Stephens noted.

While protesters and others have criticized how the officers approached Scott, Stephens said the presence of a gun reduces law enforcement’s ability to safely negotiate with a suspect.

“You don’t know what the person is going to do,” Stephens said.

“De-escalation is always an expectation, but it’s easy to stand on the sidelines and say they should have done this or that. They were not there. It’s very different to be there.”

Kenneth Williams, a professor at the Houston College of Law and an expert on police use of force, said the key fact from the video footage was that it appeared Scott ignored commands from officers to drop a weapon.

That meant Scott did not have to raise a gun or point the weapon to be considered an imminent threat, Williams said.

“I find it hard to believe a jury of 12 people would convict an officer under those circumstances,” Williams said. “The prosecutor is in a difficult position. Juries give police the benefit of the doubt.”

Legal boundaries

North Carolina law allows the use of lethal force by police “only when it appears reasonably necessary ... to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.”

One of the clarifying gauges: Would another “reasonable officer” in the same situation act the same way?

The so-called “objective reasonableness” standard used in courtrooms originated from a Charlotte excessive force case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1980s. It asks jurors to assess an officer’s conduct on one key factor: Given the same set of circumstances, would reasonable officers react the same way?

N.C.’s Basic Law Enforcement Training Manual says elements of “objective reasonableness” include the capability of a subject’s ability to carry out the threat of deadly force, whether the threat is imminent and whether the subject has indicated by word or deed that he intends to cause harm.

Criminal charges against police officers related to on-duty shootings are rare. In 2013, Officer Wes Kerrick was arrested and charged with voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed African-American man.

Then-police chief Rodney Monroe argued that there was no evidence of malice on Kerrick’s part, ruling out a murder or a stronger manslaughter count. Kerrick used bad judgment and excessive force in defending himself, but did not have any premeditation, Monroe said.

Kerrick’s 2015 trial ended with a deadlocked jury that had voted 8-4 for acquittal. Earlier, the city of Charlotte had paid a $2.25 million settlement to Ferrell’s family.

Put on leave

Vinson, who fired the shots, was immediately put on administrative leave, which is routine in such cases.

Vinson, 26, was in plain clothes but wore a vest that identified him as a police officer. He joined CMPD in 2014 and was assigned to the Metro Division. At the time of the shooting, he had no disciplinary actions on his personnel record.

Vinson played football for Ardrey Kell High School and was an all-conference safety and wide receiver in his junior year. He missed playing his senior year because of injury.

He studied criminal justice at Liberty University, where he was football captain and defensive back with a team-high 69 tackles in 2012, his senior year.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS