Prosecutor: Probable cause to charge 2 Albuquerque officers
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- A prosecutor says she brought murder charges against two Albuquerque police officers in the shooting death of a homeless man because the evidence determined probable cause.
District Attorney Kari Brandenburg wouldn't reveal details on the evidence but said at a news conference Monday that she chose to avoid a grand jury to heighten transparency.
She says it would help the community heal for the public to hear the evidence and see the witnesses, unlike police killings in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, where grand juries were used. A judge will decide if SWAT team member Dominique Perez and former Detective Keith Sandy will face trial.
Attorneys for the two say they will fight the charges. Police say Sandy and Perez fatally shot James Boyd, who was holding two knives, during a standoff.
The shooting that led to sometimes violent protests and a federal investigation into the city's police force.
Each officer faces a single count in the March death of the 38-year-old Boyd. The charges allow prosecutors to pursue either first-degree or second-degree murder against the officers, authorities said.
Police said SWAT team member Dominique Perez and former detective Keith Sandy fatally shot Boyd, who was holding two knives, during a standoff in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. Video from an officer's helmet camera showed Boyd, who authorities say had struggled with mental illness, appearing to surrender when officers opened fire.
The shooting occurred during a year when police tactics came under intense scrutiny around the country, fueled by the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, and the chokehold death of another unarmed man in New York City. Grand juries declined to charge officers in those cases, leading to protests.
The decision by District Attorney Kari Brandenburg to bring murder charges without a grand jury marks a departure from the other high-profile cases. The prosecutor was expected to discuss her decision at a news conference later Monday.
Sam Bregman, lawyer for Sandy, said the charge was "unjustified" and that his client did nothing wrong.
As a police officer, Sandy "had not only the right but the duty to defend a fellow officer from a mentally unstable, violent man wielding two knives," Bregman said.
Luis Robles, an attorney for Perez, said he was "confident that the facts will vindicate Officer Perez's actions in this case."
The FBI is also investigating, but U.S. authorities have not said if the officers will face federal charges.
Even before Boyd's death, the U.S. Justice Department was investigating the use of force by Albuquerque police. The department recently signed an agreement to make changes after the government issued a harsh report. The agreement requires police to provide better training for officers and to dismantle troubled units.
Since 2010, Albuquerque police have been involved in 40 shootings - 27 of them deadly. After Boyd's death, outrage over the trend grew.
The protests included a demonstration where authorities fired tear gas and another that shut down a City Council meeting.
The criminal charges were the first Brandenburg has brought against officers in a shooting. She is in her fourth term as district attorney and is waging a fight with the Albuquerque Police Department over allegations that she committed bribery while intervening on behalf of her son in a burglary case.
Police believe she should be charged with bribery because they say she offered to pay a victim not to press charges. The attorney general's office is handling the matter.
Brandenburg has been criticized for her office's decades-old practice of using grand juries to affirm prosecutors' decisions that no probable cause existed to charge officers in shootings.
Under a revamped system, county prosecutors now decide whether there's probable cause that a crime was committed and either take the case to a grand jury or opt to file a "criminal information" charge on their own.
A date for a preliminary hearing for the two officers has not been set, Brandenburg said.
David Correia, a police critic and an American studies professor at the University of New Mexico, said he was pleased that Brandenburg finally brought charges against Albuquerque officers after years of pressure.
"This is the first time an independent agency is holding Albuquerque police accountable," Correia said.
Police are legally empowered to use deadly force when appropriate, and a 1989 Supreme Court decision concluded that an officer's use of force must be evaluated through the "perspective of a reasonable officer on scene rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight."
Philip Matthew Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who studies police misconduct, found that local officers were charged in 41 cases with murder or manslaughter stemming from on-duty shootings between 2005 and 2011. By comparison, over the same period, police agencies reported more than 2,700 cases of justifiable homicide by law enforcement officers to the FBI, and that statistic is incomplete.
The figures suggest it's difficult to get a conviction "because juries are so reluctant to second-guess an officer's split-second decision," Stinson said.
Associated Press Writer Sadie Gurman in Denver contributed to this report.
Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras .