Conviction in John Crawford case would be hard, experts say

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Listen to the audio of the 911 call paired in real time with the surveillance video from the night of the Beavercreek Walmart shooting. This video contains graphic content and viewer discretion is advised.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Beavercreek Walmart case should not discourage people from calling 911, prosecutor says.

Convicting 911 caller Ronald T. Ritchie of making false alarms in the John Crawford III police-involved fatal shooting would be difficult, local legal experts said.

The case also prompted concerns that any prosecution would discourage others from calling 911.

Fairborn city prosecutor Betsy Deeds said Friday she is reviewing the probable cause finding made last week by Fairborn Municipal Court Judge Beth Root, who did not find probable cause against Ritchie for inciting to violence, inducing panic, involuntary manslaughter or reckless homicide.

Crawford, 22, of Fairfield, was killed by Beavercreek police Aug. 5, 2014, and shopper Angela Williams, 37, suffered a heart attack while rushing out of the store after officers fired the fatal shots.

"To get a conviction here, the prosecutor's going to have to prove that Ritchie knew it was false, not that he made a stupid mistake, but he knew it was false and made the allegation," University of Dayton law school professor emeritus Tom Hagel said about Ohio Revised Code 2917.32, which dictates a person "knowingly" report something not true. "I think they'll have a hard time meeting that element."

A conviction for making false alarms is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by maximums of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

“Probable cause is a low, low standard compared to beyond a reasonable doubt,” Hagel said.

Deeds did not estimate when she would decide whether to pursue a charge.

Ritchie's call to a Beavercreek police dispatcher did not depict what was seen on the Walmart surveillance video synchronized to the 911 recording, in Root's judgment. The judge reviewed affidavits submitted by several Greene County residents asking for criminal charges against Ritchie, who lived in Riverside when he and his wife visited Walmart that evening.

Reached Thursday by this news organization, Ritchie said: “Go away. Don’t call me again” and did not provide the name of any legal representative.

‘Knowingly’ is key term

Ritchie was the lone 911 caller to say a black man was waving a rifle at people, including children, and that he appeared to be loading it. Crawford was shot twice and killed by Beavercreek police officer Sean Williams. Crawford was found to be holding a BB/pellet gun he found unboxed on a store shelf.

Dayton defense attorney Nicholas Gounaris said there may be room for a prosecutor to work with what “knowingly” means in Ohio law.

“I understand that none of the visual evidence supported what that person was saying, which I think is problematic for the 911 caller,” Gounaris said. “Knowingly means they knew or they should have known. From a defense perspective, that is a burden that the state or the prosecution has to prove.”

On the other hand, Gounaris said the surveillance video may show a different perspective than that of Ritchie’s viewpoint.

“From a defense perspective, where was that person?” Gounaris said. “It’s obviously up to the state to prove where they were and what they saw.”

Officer Williams was the only person considered for charges during a Greene County special grand jury, which presented “no true bill” after being convened by special prosecutor Mark Piepmeier. Officer Williams remains on administrative duty pending a U.S. Dept. of Justice civil rights investigation, which is ongoing more than 18 months after it started.

The office of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who oversees the Bureau of Criminal Investigation that probed the case, had no comment about Root’s finding of probable cause.

Attorney Michael Wright, who represents Crawford’s family in a wrongful death federal civil lawsuit against Beavercreek and Walmart, said Ritchie was wrong, but not civilly culpable.

“That’s kind of a slippery slope … this was a 911 caller, I’m not in his mind so I don’t know what he was perceiving,” Wright said. “Based on the video, we do know that he was making assertions that were not correct; however, it wasn’t his fault that John Crawford is dead.”

Concern about calling 911

Deeds’ press release said her office is telling people to call police in emergencies.

“We are currently evaluating (Root’s) decision,” the release said. “In addition, our office is aware that a number of citizens have expressed concern with regard to utilizing the 911 system. We hope this week’s decision does not have a deterrent effect, and we strongly encourage citizens to continue using 911.”

Ritchie’s potential prosecution has caused concern that people may not call dispatchers for fear of being wrong.

”The people are your eyes and ears on the street,” said Cedarville University professor David Rich, who graduated from the Greene County police academy before a career as a city manager and public administrator. “This could actually put cold water on anyone being concerned about calling 911 and then being prosecuted.”

Some readers told this news organization people won’t take the chance in calling 911.

“Who will ever want to report anything anymore?” one woman asked. “I don’t think (Ritchie) should be prosecuted.”

Gounaris said people are routinely prosecuted for making false police reports.

“We have this policy that we don’t want to punish a good Samaritan for making a false police report,” Gounaris said. “But at the same time, there has to be some type of voracity behind anybody’s statements.”

During his press conference announcing that Officer Williams was not indicted, Piepmeier said: “The 911 caller, again, he’s trying to be a good citizen, report as best he can, what he’s seeing.”

What happens next

The local experts all said the case is politically charged and that they aren’t surprised residents pushed it.

"(Root) reviewed all the evidence and, if that's what she determined, it seems very legitimate to me," Gounaris said.

Rich and Hagel said Crawford supporters wanted to put pressure on Root to determine probable cause and now on Deeds and the Fairborn prosecutor’s office to decide on charges.

“Before they would file a charge in this case, I’m certain due to its notoriety, if you will, that they’re going to look at it pretty close,” Hagel said.

Rich said he doesn’t see any injustice with the probable cause finding, but that Beavercreek officers Sgt. David Darkow and Williams also must have thought there was an emergency. Rich said Williams shot Crawford after evaluating the situation for a few seconds after a dispatcher relayed what Ritchie described during four minutes.

He said prosecuting Ritchie is hard, especially after Piepmeier presumably looked at all angles before convening the special grand jury, which called Ritchie as a witness, not a potential defendant.

“You have to know the mind of the caller and whether or not it was a malicious, false call, or whether it was a true response to a fear of an event that was taking place,” Rich said. “And that’s a hard judgment.”

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