Officer charged with second-degree murder in Patrick Lyoya case
Grand Rapids — Kent County Prosecutor Christopher Becker announced a second-degree murder charge Thursday for Grand Rapids police officer Christopher Schurr in the April 4 shooting death of motorist Patrick Lyoya, an incident that rocked Michigan's second-largest city.
The announcement was immediately welcomed by Lyoya's family as a first step in the pursuit of justice in his fatal shooting, which made national headlines and initially inflamed racial tensions in west Michigan. The Rev. Al Sharpton also called for a federal investigation into the shooting at Lyoya's funeral, and a late April city commission meeting that involved comments about the shooting turned heated, resulting in an early adjournment.
"While the road to justice for Patrick and his family has just begun, this decision is a crucial step in the right direction," Lyoya family attorney Ben Crump said in a press conference after the announcement. "Officer Schurr must be held accountable for his decision to pursue an unarmed Patrick, ultimately shooting him in the back of the head and killing him — for nothing more than a traffic stop.”
Schurr turned himself in to the Michigan State Police and is expected to be arraigned Friday in 61st District Court in Grand Rapids, Becker said. Second-degree murder is a felony offense punishable by up to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
"As it stands now, this is merely an allegation and as with any defendant, he is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law," said Becker at a press conference held at the Sixth District headquarters of the Michigan State Police, who did the investigation.
"The elements of second-degree murder is relatively simple. First, there was a death, a death done by the defendant. ... The death was not justified or excused, for example, by self-defense. Taking a look at everything that I reviewed in this case, I believe there's a sufficient basis to proceed."
The charge resulted in Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom recommending that Schurr be suspended and fired. Schurr must decide whether he wants to fight termination at a hearing. If he declines, the firing would immediately take effect, the police chief said.
Winstrom said at press conference with Mayor Rosalynn Bliss after Becker's announcement that he based the discipline on the video of the death, an investigation by the department's internal affairs division and the prosecutor’s decision to charge the officer. The prosecutor’s decision to charge the officer after reviewing the report suggested the officer performed poorly,.
“I respect the prosecutor’s decision,” said Winstrom, who stopped short of saying whether he supported Becker's decision. "I think he’s a fair man.”
Becker started the announcement by extending gratitude to the Lyoya family, adding they were informed first of the charge and received a written letter explaining it in their native language of Swahili.
"The unimaginable pain and stress and the emotions they must be going through all of this," Becker said. "I deeply appreciate what they've done, especially the calls for peace and calm during this entire time."
Videos of the shooting show Lyoya, who is a Black immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, face down on the ground when he was shot in the back of the head by Schurr, who is White. Just prior to the shooting, Lyoya can be seen on video struggling with Schurr over the officer's stun gun.
The Grand Rapids police union couldn't be immediately reached for comment. But the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association said in a statement last month that it believed a thorough review of the shooting would show Schurr had the legal right to protect himself in a “volatile dangerous situation.”
Police are trained that a simple traffic stop can quickly turn dangerous, said the union. It's difficult to imagine the stress, fear, exhaustion and challenges an officer faces in volatile incidents, it said.
“Police officers are often required to march into episodes that turn dangerous for the officer,” the union said. “A police officer has the obligation to protect themselves, fellow officers and the community.”
Lyoya was "super drunk" at 8:33 a.m. autopsy reports showed. His blood ethanol level was 0.29, more than three times Michigan's limit of 0.08 and higher than 0.17, which the state classifies as super drunk. Court records also reveal Lyoya had several interactions with police since arriving in the United States in 2014 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, but law experts said the instances are irrelevant to what led to his death.
What needs to be proved
Becker said he plans to prosecute the case in local court and will handle the prosecution personally.
As for the charge coming more than two months after the alleged crime, Becker said he received the full police report from investigators eight days ago even though the shooting occurred a little over two months ago. In filing the charge, Becker said he consulted with attorneys inside and out of the prosecutor’s office. He also spoke with legal experts, including ones in the use of force.
“I wanted to be thorough,” he said. “This is not a decision I took lightly. This is a major step that can’t be taken back.”
Asked whether he was sending a message to the police about their actions, Becker said he never uses the filing of charges to send a message. He bases his decisions on the facts of the case, he said.
But he said it was important for the public to know that a prosecutor’s office is separate from police departments. He said the public sometimes believes the two agencies are one in the same.
“We don’t work for the police,” Becker said. “I hope it (the charge) shows we take these cases seriously.”
Legal experts said Schurr must show there was an imminent threat to his life to justify using deadly force. Second-degree murder involves showing that the defendant may not have planned to kill someone in advance, but ended up causing someone's death intentionally, said former Detroit U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, who is now a law professor at the University of Michigan.
How jurors are instructed to view the case will be important, she said.
"A common defense to murder involving a police officer is self-defense or public authority defense. Jurors are typically instructed that they should view the police officer’s actions from the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene," McQuade said.
"A police officer may use force, even deadly force, if necessary to protect his own life or the life of another person. Jurors are also typically instructed that they should view the facts not from the 20/20 vision of hindsight, but from the perspective of the officer at the time, with the understanding that police officers must make decisions under circumstances that are tense and rapidly evolving."
David Robinson, a retired Detroit police officer who served for 13 years and is now an attorney specializing in police misconduct cases, said Schurr's actions in his pursuit of Lyoya were not proper.
"Certainly, the execution with a bullet to the back of the head of Mr. Lyoya by Schurr was unjustified and egregious," said Robinson, adding that Becker will have to overcome Schurr's claim that he faced an imminent threat.
"It is not a capital offense to run; nor, is it a capital offense to be intoxicated," Robinson said. "The evil intent will be the challenge since Schurr will steadfastly claim he was in fear of his life."
Despite the recent controversial decision by jurors in Grand Rapids federal court who acquitted two men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and deadlocked on charges against the two alleged ringleaders, Becker said he has "full faith in the jurors."
Reaction to the announcement
The Lyoya family had called the shooting a murder and the family's legal team on Thursday welcomed the decision. The family joined attorney Ven Johnson, who is one of five attorneys for the family, at his downtown Detroit law office to respond to the charge. Crump, who represented George Floyd's family, joined the press conference by video.
"You will not see any celebrations on behalf of the family,” Johnson said before thanking state police for their work staying in contact with the family from the beginning.
The evidence shows "there is no excuse for Patrick being shot in the back of the head," he said. "Unfortunately, many people in our society believe, contrary to Michigan and United States law, that if you resist arrest, the officer can do anything he wants to you. That's false."
Johnson pleaded for no violence in response to the second-degree murder charge.
"The last thing this family wants is for anyone else to get hurt," he said.
Johnson thanked Becker and the family's interpreter, Israel Siku, adding the past two months have felt like an eternity.
Patrick's father, Peter, sat at the conference room table on Thursday next to Johnson, Siku and Kent County Commissioner Robert Womack, who initially invited Crump and Sharpton to Grand Rapids following the shooting.
Peter Lyoya said the decision to charge the officer brought little consolation to their family.
“My heart was really broken during these last two months. … I was thinking maybe there’s no justice in America," Peter Lyoya said. “Patrick is not coming back, we’re not going to see him again. We are not done here. Let’s go … and get justice for Patrick.”
The officer’s body camera was turned off during the struggle; however, surveillance footage from nearby homes and a witness who was in the vehicle with Lyoya and captured video, aided the investigation.
In the 20 minutes of released footage by Grand Rapids Police, the officer tells Lyoya he was pulled over because his license plate didn't match his vehicle.
Had the video not existed, attorney Johnson said he doubted the officer would have been charged. Lyoya’s father concurred.
“If we didn’t see the video and we didn’t show the world what happened to Patrick, we would not be here,” Peter Lyoya said. “Without that video, there would be no justice.”
Womack and Peter Lyoya both expressed a desire to see the officer removed from his position.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel also weighed in, saying: "At the Department of Attorney General, we understand the exceptional resources needed to evaluate police-involved shooting deaths, and I commend Prosecutor Becker, his team and the Michigan State Police for the exhaustive review conducted these last two months.
"We must now respect the judicial process and allow the facts of the case to be presented in court."
The Michigan Legislative Black Caucus called Becker's filing of a charge "just a beginning."
"It’s evident that change is required and should be demanded to prevent the violent police response that led to Patrick Lyoya’s murder," the 30-member caucus said in a statement. "We pledge to work with the governor, the governor’s Black Leadership Advisory Council, the Civil Rights Commission, and local Grand Rapids community leaders to produce meaningful resolutions in law enforcement that disproportionately impacts communities of color."
At a press conference after Becker's announcement, Bliss said the city has been proactive in improving the police department, but the shooting shows that more needs to be done.
“This tragedy has shaken our entire community,” the mayor said. “As we move forward, we have a lot of work to do.”