Harrowing Echo for Many Families: Officer Shoots, Jury Acquits

When the verdict came down on Friday — another police officer found not guilty in the killing of another black man — a father 700 miles away, in Oklahoma, felt as if he were watching a sickening replay of his own son’s fate. Other families of those killed in previous police shootings, who happened to be gathered in Detroit for a conference this week, felt reverberations of their own pain. 

And on a street corner here outside the courthouse where a jury acquitted a Minnesota officer in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile last summer, Mr. Castile’s mother, Valerie, vented a bitter frustration shared by many activists. “A murderer gets away,” said Ms. Castile, visibly anguished. “The system in this country continues to fail black people.”

After all of the public scrutiny, nationwide protests and grisly videos of police shootings over the past several years, few officers are criminally charged, and when the rare case is prosecuted, hopes rise that justice will be served. More often than not, officers are not convicted, raising a question: Do divisions widen between the police and their communities if people view the justice system as having failed than if there had been no prosecution, no deeper look, at all?

About 900 to 1,000 people are fatally shot by police officers in the United States every year, said Philip M. Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University who tracks police shootings. Since 2005, when Mr. Stinson began his tally, just 29 nonfederal law enforcement officers have been convicted in on-duty shootings. Fourteen pleaded guilty, and 15 were convicted by juries. In that time, more officers — 33 — have been arrested or charged with murder or manslaughter but not convicted.

In many of these cases, questions of guilt do not hinge on who fired the fatal shot, but on what officers were thinking when they pulled the trigger.

“As soon as the officer gets on the stand and subjectively says, ‘I was fearing for my life,’ many juries are not going to convict at that point,” Mr. Stinson said. “We’ve seen it over and over again.”

Such was the case in Cincinnati, where prosecutors are retrying a former university police officer for murder after a jury failed to reach a verdict on whether to hold him responsible in the shooting death of Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black driver. And in Baltimore, the prosecution of six officers in the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in police custody, ended last year without a single conviction after three officers were acquitted and the state’s attorney dropped all remaining charges against the other three.

And last month in Oklahoma, a jury that included at least four black jurors deliberated for nine hours before acquitting a white police officer, Betty Jo Shelby, in the shooting of Terence Crutcher. He was standing in the street outside his sport-utility vehicle, was unarmed and had his hands in the air for much of the fatal confrontation.

When Mr. Crutcher’s father, the Rev. Joey Crutcher, 69, heard about Friday’s verdict, he said, his thoughts turned to his son and parallels between the case in Minnesota and his son’s. “We’ve gone through this time and time again in different cities,” he said. “I’m beginning to think that police have free rein and they can just do whatever they want and they are going to get off.”

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