I support the decision by an Arizona jury to acquit former police officer, Philip Brailsford, on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter.
While serving as an officer with the Mesa police department in January 2016, Philip Brailsford shot and killed an unarmed Daniel Shaver, as the latter attempted to surrender inside a hotel. Brailsford's police body camera recorded the incident and as such, many have reacted with outrage to the jury's decision. I believe the totality of the facts explains why Brailsford was acquitted.
First off, we must consider the context that the original police call involved an individual pointing a firearm outside of his room window. Identified as the room Brailsford was occupying, it is clear to understand why the responding police officers were concerned that Shaver was armed and dangerous.
Second, in the camera footage of the incident, we see Shaver, albeit in a visibly and audibly emotional state, repeatedly struggling to comply with the police orders. By training and experience, police officers reasonably regard this behavior as indicative of a possible concealed threat.
But then come the immediate circumstances that lead to Shaver's death.
As Shaver crawls towards the officers as ordered, he is compliant. As this screenshot from police body camera footage of the incident shows, Shaver's hands are visible in front of him. At this point he clearly poses no threat and had Brailsford shot him, the probability of a murder conviction would have been significant and of a manslaughter conviction exceptionally high.
Yet I believe the two screenshots below offer the critical evidence that led to Brailsford being acquitted.
The first screenshot shows Brailsford one second before he fires the shot. Note that the officer has his rifle pointing away from Shaver down the corridor (presumably covering for other possible threats), in the video it is also clear that Brailsford has his finger off his trigger.
But one second later, apparently seeking to adjust his shorts, Shaver reaches behind his back to his waistband. Perceiving a threat, Brailsford reacquires Shaver in his rifle sights, puts his finger to the trigger and fires five times.
Shaver is killed.
But while a quick viewing of the body camera footage makes Brailsford's behavior seem criminal, we must consider what the prosecution needed to prove in order to convict the officer beyond all reasonable doubt. Because for the second-degree murder charge, they needed to prove that Brailsford acted maliciously, if not with premeditation, to unlawfully kill Shaver. Reaching a jury consensus on that basis was near-impossible on this evidence.
For the reckless manslaughter charge, the prosecution needed to convince the jury that, in the context of his training and the rules of engagement, Brailsford acted with gross disregard for Shaver's well-being. Again, however, because of Brailsford's reacquisition of Shaver in light of Shaver's hand movement behind his body, Brailsford could claim his act was a proportionate response to a reasonably held fear of imminent threat to life. In this case, Brailsford's specific fear that Shaver was reaching for a weapon in order to engage the SWAT team.
Ultimately this is an immense tragedy for all involved. And while it is notable that other members of the SWAT team did not fire on Shaver — thus suggesting that Brailsford should have waited to engage -- based on the facts as applied to law, it would have been unjust to convict Brailsford of criminal responsibility here. His acts were reasonable in the context of the circumstances and I believe a conviction would have been overturned by an appeals court.
You can watch the video here (WARNING: obviously the video is graphic).