Nearly 3 years after a Beavercreek police officer shot and killed John Crawford III in Walmart, federal investigators said Tuesday afternoon they would not seek federal charges against the officer.
Officer Sean Williams — one of two officers who entered Walmart after a 911 caller reported seeing a man with a gun in the store — twice shot Crawford, a Fairfield resident who was talking on a cell phone while holding a replica-style pellet gun he found unboxed on a store shelf. The shooting happened the night of Aug. 5, 2014.
The federal investigation came after a special grand jury in Greene County declined charges. Federal officials announced Tuesday that their investigation “revealed that the evidence is insufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Officer Williams violated federal civil rights laws.”
Beavercreek Law Director Stephen McHugh issued a statement on behalf of the city in response to the decision.
“The events of Aug. 5, 2014, were tragic, and the Beavercreek Police Department wishes the outcome of that evening had been different,” the statement read. “The Beavercreek Police Department has maintained the officers committed no criminal violations and followed accepted law enforcement protocol in their response to the report of an active threat in the Walmart store. The Beavercreek Police Department has fully cooperated with all investigations of this event and will continue to maintain the highest organizational values and constantly seek to uphold the trust of all citizens.”
Michael Wright, the Crawford family attorney, said they are “disappointed” in the Department Of Justice’s decision.
“We continue to pursue justice through the civil case,” Wright said. “However, the family remains disappointed that the DOJ did not pursue charges … we believe there was ample evidence that charges should have been filed or pursued against the officers.”
Sgt. David Darkow entered Walmart that night with Williams but did not fire his weapon.
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Beavercreek police said Williams shot after he and Darkow repeatedly yelled at Crawford to drop the weapon. Crawford had a third of a second to react before the shots, according to his family’s attorneys.
The family’s wrongful death civil suit against several parties — including the city, the officers and Walmart — is set for trial in February 2018.
Crawford was not the only person who died that night. Walmart shopper Angela Williams, 37, who worked at a Springfield nursing home, collapsed in the store after hearing the shooting and as she tried to rush her children out. She was declared dead at nearby Soin Medical Center.
Investigators said they focused on if they could prove Officer Williams willfully denied Crawford of a constitutional right.
“To establish willfulness, federal authorities would be required to show that the officer acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids. This is one of the highest standards of intent imposed by law,” the federal statement read. “Mistake, misperception, negligence, necessity, or poor judgment are not sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation.”
“To establish that Officer Williams acted willfully, the government would be required both to disprove his stated reason for the shooting – that he was in fear of death or serious bodily injury – and to affirmatively establish that Officer Williams instead acted with the specific intent to violate Mr. Crawford’s rights,” according to the statement. “The evidence here simply cannot satisfy those burdens.”
University of Dayton law professor Thomas Hagel disagreed with the DOJ’s conclusion. He said the case should have hinged on whether it was “necessary” to kill Crawford in that situation.
“Frankly, I don’t believe it was,” he said.
He also said someone acting negligently would be sufficient to prove their actions unreasonable.
“There is more than enough facts here to justify putting this before a jury,” Hagel said.
Patrick Oliver is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Cedarville University and a former police chief at Fairborn, Grandview Heights, and Cleveland.
“I understand the decision that they made based on the totality of the investigation and the facts they have,” Oliver said. “I also think it would be difficult to support a criminal charge and then get a conviction … Can you prove intent on the part of the officer? I think that would be a difficult threshold in this situation.”
Federal officials, in their statement, explained their investigation.
“The investigation was conducted by career investigators and prosecutors, and included a review of voluminous materials… Federal officials collected and carefully analyzed all available footage from Walmart’s in-store video surveillance system using resources at the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va. Prosecutors also obtained assistance from an independent crime scene reconstruction expert to aid in understanding the exact perspectives held by the officers who confronted Mr. Crawford,” the statement said.RELATED: Walmart map shows location of Crawford, 911 caller, Williams
The federal investigation began on Sept. 25, 2014, the same day that a Greene County special grand jury declined to indict Officer Williams.
Special prosecutor Mark Piepmeier said then Crawford “did nothing wrong.”
Beavercreek Chief Dennis Evers placed Officer Williams on administrative duty after the shooting, where he has remained since.
Wright met with DOJ officials in the fall, but he said the length of the investigation and the appointment of Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general eroded his hopes that the DOJ would seek charges.
“Going from Loretta Lynch to Jeff Sessions will significantly decrease the amount of civil rights cases that will be brought by the office,” he said. “This will not be a priority for the administration.”