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Trial over APD shooting opens in federal court

Albuquerque Police Department Detective Laura Martin marks evidence along Second Street after Chandler Barr was shot by officer Leah Kelly.  Barr was holding a "kitchen-style knife" similar to a butter knife when he was shot. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Albuquerque Police Department Detective Laura Martin marks evidence along Second Street after Chandler Barr was shot by officer Leah Kelly. Barr was holding a “kitchen-style knife” similar to a butter knife when he was shot. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Chandler Barr still carries a hollow-point bullet lodged near his spine from being shot by an Albuquerque police officer as he stepped off a curb at Second Street and onto Central Avenue just after 8 a.m. on Sept. 14, 2010.

Barr was holding a serrated butter knife at the time and ignored repeated orders by the officer to drop it.

Four years after that event, he is in federal court in the civil rights case he brought against the city. It is the first police shooting case to go to trial since the U.S. Department of Justice report finding a pattern and practice of excessive force by the Albuquerque Police Department.

And though the city has been publicly accommodating toward at least some of DOJ’s recommended reforms, it has fought to keep the report out of evidence as unreliable and prejudicial hearsay.

Based on the court’s rulings, the report will come into evidence only if the jury agrees that Officer Leah Kelly used excessive force when she shot Barr. The trial then would move on to a second phase, involving the city’s potential liability in supervising her and other officers.

Barr is seeking damages that include the undisputed total of $340,000 in medical bills, as well as compensation for his pain and suffering and for punitive damages.

The District Attorney’s Office released a report in 2013 clearing Kelly and recommending that no criminal charges be filed against her. Barr faced criminal charges of aggravated assault of a police officer, which were dismissed in 2012.

In September 2010, Barr was in Albuquerque on a bus trip from Oklahoma to Oregon when he started hearing voices telling him to hurt himself, according to the report.

He spent a night in the hospital and mental health center in Albuquerque, but when he tried to get on the bus and go back home the next day, he was told he would have to pay $50 or show proof of his hospitalization.

Agitated, he left the transit center on First Street and, using a serrated butter knife he had found somewhere, began cutting his forearm.

A Greyhound Bus employee working at the transit center called 911, and he and eventually two other transit-related employees began following Barr – to First Street and through the city parking garage to Second Street and north toward Central.

There, sirens stopped as two police cars screeched to a halt in the intersection. Within 30 seconds of their arrival, Barr had taken two bullets to the chest from Kelly.

It will be up to a federal jury to decide if Kelly used excessive force, or if she was justified in the decision she made that day.

The jury of eight was selected Monday during a marathon session of individual questioning with Barr’s lawyers, the city’s legal team and U.S. Magistrate Judge Greg Wormuth, who is trying the case.

On Tuesday jurors heard 911 calls during opening statements, saw multiple still photos and watched a cellphone video before they were dismissed for lunch.

Barr’s lead attorney, Cammie Nichols, and co-counsel Brendan Egan also stretched out a long measuring tape in the spacious courtroom to demonstrate what 20 to 28 feet looks like. That’s what a detective investigating the officer-involved shooting estimated the distance was between Kelly and Barr when the officer fired.

Kelly knew before arriving that she was looking for a man cutting his own arm, Nichols said, and once there immediately yelled, “Stop! Drop the knife!” twice – her gun pointed at Barr – before firing twice.

Barr dropped face first to the pavement, but even afterward, Nichols said, officers did not tend to Barr’s injuries but ordered him to put his hands behind him.

Because the shooting occurred on a Tuesday morning as people were headed to work, there were multiple witnesses to the event, including a city electrician who had a bird’s-eye view from an aerial bucket truck on Central where he and a helper were repairing a decorative light.

Deputy City Attorney Stephanie Griffin, who is defending Kelly, told jurors that the case is “important to both sides.”

“What this case is about is the single most important decision an officer will make during their career – whether to use deadly force. It is not a decision taken lightly,” she said.

“What we’re contending,” Griffin said, “is that he was a threat to Officer Kelly when she arrived at the scene.”

Both sides have lined up experts in what Griffin called “could have, should have” been.

Just as Nichols promised eyewitnesses who did not see Barr threatening anyone, Griffin said she would call motorists whose perceptions were different.

She asked Greyhound supervisor Ryan Trujillo, the 911 caller, how much distance Barr closed between himself and the officers before the shooting. At least 5 feet, he said, adding that Kelly had given multiple commands for him to drop the weapon.

Like businessman Kutlu Gulamber, who testified earlier that Barr’s motions were so robotic it reminded him of the Terminator, Trujillo agreed that Barr seemed “dazed” at the time.

Gulamber said Barr seemed like he was in a trance when he changed direction at Central and starting approaching the officers.

“He wasn’t perceiving actions like the rest of us,” Gulamber said. “It was as though he had no fear of the gun pointed at him.”

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