MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) – A white police officer was cleared by a grand jury Tuesday in the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old black man during a fight at a traffic stop, but a lawyer for the man’s family says he will seek a federal civil rights investigation.
Jurors rejected Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich’s recommendation that they indict the officer on charges of voluntary manslaughter and employment of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony, Weirich said. Weirich refused to elaborate on what led her to make her recommendation.
Police have said previously that Darrius Stewart was a passenger in a car stopped by the officer July 17 for a headlight violation. Stewart was placed in the back of a squad car without handcuffs as the officer checked on active warrants for him, authorities said.
Officer Connor Schilling returned to the squad car to arrest and handcuff Stewart after a warrant was verified, and Stewart kicked the door and attacked the officer, beating Schilling with the handcuffs, police said.
Schilling shot Stewart with his duty weapon during the struggle, police said. Stewart died of two gunshot wounds at a hospital, a medical examiner found. Schilling had been relieved of duty – a routine procedure – pending the outcome of the investigation.
Carlos Moore, an attorney representing Stewart’s father, Henry Williams, demanded at a news conference that federal authorities conduct a civil rights investigation into Stewart’s death and said Schilling should either resign or be fired.
A hearing on undisclosed administrative charges will be held no earlier than next week to determine the officer’s future with the department, Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong told reporters Tuesday.
Weirich said she has spoken to Stewart’s relatives but declined to discuss details of the conversation. She said she did not know the racial makeup of the grand jury.
“I understand how upsetting and alarming this news is and will continue to be during the next weeks and months,” she said.
Weirich asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to look into the shooting. The state police agency gave an 800-page report to her on Aug. 20, and she asked community members that day to be patient as she studied it.
Stewart’s death, like other high-profile cases nationwide in which unarmed black men were killed by police officers, prompted rallies and vigils across Memphis. Pastors and other community leaders have pushed for answers as they waited for word of possible charges against the officer.
Williams told reporters he was shocked when he heard the grand jury was not going to indict.
“A police officer took a young man’s life, no matter what,” Williams said. “I hate that it was my son.”
John Keith Perry, a lawyer representing the victim’s mother, Mary Stewart, said Stewart waited patiently for about 100 days for the investigation into the death of her son to be completed and for the case to be presented to the grand jury. Perry says she is still grieving.
“She understandably, like his father, is now heartbroken for a second time,” Perry said.
Outside the courthouse Tuesday, a group of Memphis pastors asked the community to stay calm as the news spreads. They said they would push for criminal justice reform and possible civil action against the officer.
“Yes, we should remain calm, but that does not mean we will remain silent,” said pastor Noel Hutchinson of First Baptist Church, Lauderdale.
Weirich said the grand jury heard evidence in the case on Tuesday. The pastors questioned how a grand jury could review such a large investigative report and reach a decision in such a short time.
Pastor Keith Norman also asked the community to remember how the confrontation between Stewart and the officer began.
“A young man is dead because of a traffic stop. Let’s not forget that,” said Norman, president of the local NAACP chapter.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, has said he would like to see the case handled by an independent prosecutor who is not from Shelby County. Cohen said he has reached out to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to ask for help from the Department of Justice to determine whether any civil rights have been violated.
The shooting also led Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. to ask for a review of police policy regarding how officers deal with car passengers during traffic stops. He has requested information from the police department on when it is permissible to question, detain and search a passenger in a car that has been stopped by police.
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