Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
It’s been three years since then-Albuquerque police officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez made national news after fatally shooting homeless camper James Boyd, and more than two years since they became the first Albuquerque police officers to face charges for a shooting in at least 50 years.
Their cases ended Friday afternoon.
Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez announced his office will not retry the officers, who faced a murder trial that ended in a hung jury last year. Torrez said there were a number of mistakes made the day of the shooting, but that laws make it difficult to prosecute police officers for on-duty shootings. At no point during his announcement did he endorse or praise the officers’ actions the day of James Boyd’s death.
Torrez announced the decision during a news conference at his office, which had closed early Friday and was heavily guarded by Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies in case there was some form of protest or demonstration. Metropolitan and district courthouses also closed early Friday afternoon in case there was public outcry to the dismissal.
But all was calm in Downtown as the highly charged and dramatic murder case that, in 2014, sparked large protests in the street came to an anticlimactic end.
“There is no reason to believe the case against Detective Sandy and officer Perez could be tried better or more exhaustively at a second trial, or that a second jury could reach a different outcome,” Torrez said.
“There were a number of mistakes that were made, I think,” Torrez said. “If you asked or talked to people that were there that day, if they could go back and do things differently, I would imagine that everyone would tell you that they would try to do something differently. Hopefully the police department can learn lessons from what went wrong and we can develop a situation where we’re not in that situation again.”
Former District Attorney Kari Brandenburg filed murder charges against the two officers in January 2015. But a judge disqualified her from prosecuting and attorney Randi McGinn was appointed as a special prosecutor. The 12-day trial late last year ended in a hung jury.
“I respect the decision,” she said after Torrez’s announcement. “I would hope there would be the same decision if it was reversed and a homeless man killed a police officer.”
Both Torrez and McGinn said the case brought needed changes to the Albuquerque Police Department. McGinn pointed out that since a judge found there was enough evidence for the officers to stand trial for murder, the number of police shootings in Albuquerque has dropped significantly. Since the shooting, the police department has also started an ongoing, year-long reform effort that was the result of a Department of Justice investigation which found Albuquerque police had a pattern of excessive force, which included police shootings.
Last year, city police officers were involved in seven shootings, the fewest number of police shootings in at least seven years.
And the department’s SWAT team, which was controlling the scene when Boyd was shot, hasn’t fired a weapon in the line of duty since July 2014.
“The community has seen that APD can actually do its job without killing people,” McGinn said.
Luis Robles, Perez’s attorney, said when his client learned that the case was over it was as if “clouds had lifted.”
“It’s finally over,” Robles said. “It wasn’t until today.”
Torrez said he hoped the case motivates people in the community to advocate on behalf of the homeless and people with a mental illness.
Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden said in a statement that the police department has learned from the Boyd shooting, which he said was a “difficult event” for the community. “We have learned much from it. Through our ongoing reform efforts, we strive to be the banner police department in the nation and will continually grow and improve policing in Albuquerque.”
Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque police union, said Sandy and Perez have struggled financially because of the prosecution. Sandy retired after the incident and Perez was fired after he was formerly charged.
“We would like to thank District Attorney Raúl Torrez and his office for undertaking a thoughtful, impartial process to review this case, and we are deeply grateful for the timely manner in which this decision was provided,” Willoughby said. “We have always maintained that our officers were not guilty.”
Sam Bregman, Sandy’s attorney, said his client is looking forward to getting on with his life. He said both Perez and Sandy were following their training that day.
“Obviously, Mr. Sandy and his entire defense team are in agreement and are grateful for the decision,” he said. “The case should never have been charged in the first place.”
2014 Boyd shooting
Sandy and Perez fatally shot Boyd on a March evening in 2014 after an hours-long standoff in the Sandia foothills east of Tramway, where the homeless man who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia had been camping in a city open space without a permit.
A team of officers surrounded Boyd’s campsite for a several hours and tried to talk him into surrendering. At that point, he was facing a “battery on a police officer” charge because Boyd had been armed with knives when he was first approached by two uniformed police officers.
Video footage showed Boyd finally agreed to leave the area. But after gathering up his belongings, officers used an array of less lethal weapons – a flash bang, a Taser shotgun and a police K9 – in an attempt to take Boyd into custody. The plan backfired and Boyd pulled out two small knives. That’s when Sandy and Perez opened fire.
The officers faced a jury last year. But after a 12-day trial, jurors deadlocked on whether or not to convict. Nine found the officers not guilty and three voted for guilty.
Sandy, who was a detective assigned to APD’s now-disbanded Repeat Offender Project team, retired after the shooting. Perez, a SWAT team officer who hadn’t fired his weapon in the line of duty prior to the incident, was terminated as a result of the criminal charges. He has filed an appeal in an attempt to get his job back.
Footage of the shooting, which Perez recorded with a camera attached to his helmet, went viral and led to protests in the streets. The video was played as evidence at trial.
Boyd’s family frustrated
Torrez said he spoke with Boyd’s family members prior to his announcement, and said they expressed frustration with the outcome of the case. The family settled a civil suit with the city for $5 million. They later donated $200,000 to homeless advocacy organizations in Albuquerque.
Prior to making a decision, Torrez assembled a team of six district attorneys from around the state who reviewed the evidence and unanimously said the case should not be retried. Torrez also had his prosecutors review the case and offer input before he made a decision.
The Boyd shooting was just one of dozens of pending shootings by law enforcement officers that Torrez inherited when he took over as district attorney at the start of the year. He said at the news conference that he will hire two independent and experienced prosecutors to review the cases and make prompt decisions on the cases that are easy to judge – cases where officers were injured or had firearms pointed at them prior to opening fire. He said he will ask that same team of district attorneys from other counties to offer input on the more suspicious officer shooting cases before he makes a decision.