A state District Court jury is about to make New Mexico history, continuing deliberations today in the first criminal prosecution of Albuquerque police officers in 50 years for an on-duty shooting of a citizen.
But both the prosecution and the defense told jurors Thursday in closing arguments that there was even more at stake when they decide whether former APD officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez are guilty of second-degree murder in the March 16, 2014, fatal shooting of homeless camper James Boyd in the Sandia foothills.
The verdict will send a message that could affect police relations, police recruitment, the treatment of the mentally ill and police practices, the attorneys predicted in closing arguments.
“You are the most powerful people in Albuquerque,” attorney Sam Bregman told jurors. “We all know the government sometimes gets it wrong. It’s time to send a message that we don’t prosecute police officers who are just doing their jobs.”
Defense attorneys contend the fatal shooting was a justifiable homicide under state law because the two officers fired at Boyd to prevent him from attacking a police K-9 handler who moved too close to Boyd during the confrontation. Boyd at the time had just drawn his knives after police used a flash-bang device, fired a Taser shotgun and released a police dog to bite him. None of those tactics was effective in subduing him.
Special prosecutor Randi McGinn countered that Sandy and Perez fired upon Boyd when he hadn’t made any physical advances toward them. Boyd had earlier brandished knives and threatened officers’ lives during a near three-hour standoff at his makeshift camp on a hillside.
McGinn argued, “It’s not enough that somebody’s threatening you. It’s not enough that they have a knife. … It’s that they have to come toward you.
“We are asking you to hold them accountable … for stepping over the line. They violated their own rules. It’s a dangerous place to draw the line. If that’s where they draw the line, then nobody’s safe.”
McGinn agreed to become special prosecutor on the case after District Attorney Kari Brandenburg was disqualified because of conflict raised by defense attorneys.
Brandenburg filed a criminal information in the case in January 2015, and a district court judge last August found probable cause to bind the two former officers over for trial. Meanwhile, the city of Albuquerque settled a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Boyd’s family for $5 million.
APD in recent years has come under attack for its use of deadly force, and the Boyd shooting was mentioned in a highly critical U.S. Justice Department investigation that led to reforms. The DOJ investigation criticized APD for its treatment of the mentally ill and those in crisis.
That information wasn’t presented to the jury during the two-and-a-half week trial.
“What does justice look like? It should be justice for Mr. Boyd. The decision you make is going to be watched, by the police community,” McGinn said. And, she added, by those in the mental health field. Boyd, 38, suffered from schizophrenia for at least a decade, testimony revealed.
Perez’s attorney, Luis Robles, told the jury that even the prosecution’s police expert testified that “society had made police officers into social workers and mental health workers of last resort.” Robles said police officers like Sandy and Perez “essentially have to suffer the consequences made by elected officials,” who haven’t provided the resources for the mentally ill.
Added Bregman, “Who would ever want to be a police officer when the same state that trains you to use deadly force then prosecutes you. We’ll never have another police officer.”
Sandy testified at trial that he fired as Boyd took a “defensive stance” and turned to his left. Perez testified he believed Boyd was about to attack the K-9 officer Scott Weimerskirch and said he didn’t see Boyd turn around before he fired three more gunshots, one which hit Boyd in the lower back. Boyd died the next morning.
Bregman said Sandy, who also faces a lesser aggravated battery charge, was made out to be a “cowboy cop” by the prosecution, which he said was far from being true.
“It was his duty, his duty to ensure his fellow officer doesn’t become another statistic,” Bregman said. Since Boyd’s death, five police officers in New Mexico have been killed in the line of duty.
Moreover, Bregman said there was no evidence presented that Boyd was surrendering.
“The government will have you believe that two officers who never spoke to each other at the very same split second decided to become murderers. Seriously? Really?” Bregman said.
Both sides pointed to the well-circulated APD video of the shooting as proof of Boyd’s threatening movements, or the lack of them.
McGinn told jurors the video footage shows that Perez and Sandy fired the fatal shots at Boyd while he was surrendering.
“The most important evidence in this case is the video. When they tell you something, check the video,” she said.
Robles advised jurors to review the same video, taken by Perez’s helmet camera, in making his case that the shooting was justified under the law.
“There was a real step (Boyd took toward the officers) and it’s here in the video,” Robles told the jury.