Cop acquitted in shooting death of mentally ill black man

2016-10-07 14:45
Norfolk police officer Michael Edington speaks to his attorney, Jeffrey Swartz, outside of Norfolk Circuit Court. (Ben Finley/AP Photo)

Norfolk police officer Michael Edington speaks to his attorney, Jeffrey Swartz, outside of Norfolk Circuit Court. (Ben Finley/AP Photo)

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Norfolk – A jury in Virginia on Thursday acquitted a white police officer who had been charged in the shooting death of a mentally ill black man holding a knife.

Norfolk police officer Michael Edington faced one count of voluntary manslaughter for shooting David Latham in June 2014.

Outside the courtroom, the 'not guilty' verdict revealed the nation's stark fault lines over race and policing.

Jeffery Swartz, one of Edington's attorneys, praised the jury for setting aside "national issues and biases" and showing that the criminal justice system "still works".

But Latham's family said justice remains elusive for black men and people with mental illness.

Michael J. Muhammad, a Latham family spokesperson, said they want a federal investigation of Norfolk's police department and a dozen police-involved shootings in recent years.

Edington has been on administrative duty since the shooting. Speaking through tears outside the courtroom, Edington, 27, the son of a police officer, said he intends to stay in law enforcement.

"It's something I'm very passionate about," he said.

'I have my life back'

After the verdict, Edington had embraced his attorney and laid his head on his attorney's shoulder, while family members sobbed.

"It's been 2½ years of waiting for this to be off my shoulders," Edington said. "I have my life back."

Latham, 35, suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. On the night he died, he had gotten into an argument with family members over a bag of potato chips and grabbed a knife. His relatives called 911.

Police arrived to find Latham holding a foot-long butcher knife on his mother's steps.

Prosecutors had argued that Edington didn't give Latham a chance. They said Latham held the knife at his side without advancing or retreating from the officer. Edington shot him several times.

But Edington and his defence attorneys argued that Latham threatened violence, moved the knife around and made a small but alarming step as if he would attack.

Edington testified that he feared the 1.8m tall, 123kg man was about to charge him with the blade, according to local media reports.

The jury consisted of five women and seven men. Eight of the jurors were white, three were black, and one was Asian.

Shooting not justified

Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said juries are often reluctant to convict police officers because they know how dangerous their jobs can be.

Nationwide, Edington is among 77 officers who've been charged since 2005 with either manslaughter or murder after shooting someone while on duty, Stinson said.

So far, a third of the officers have been convicted and a third acquitted, Stinson said. The remaining cases are pending.

Latham's death was not the region's first police-involved shooting or its first trial for an officer charged with excessive force.

In August, a jury in the neighbouring city of Portsmouth convicted white former police officer Stephen Rankin of voluntary manslaughter. He shot to death William Chapman, a black teen suspected of shoplifting at a Wal-Mart.

In Norfolk, Latham is one of 13 people, 10 of them black, who've been killed by police since 2010, according to a Virginian-Pilot analysis.

Greg Underwood, who prosecuted Edington's case, said other shootings were found to be justified. He didn't believe Latham's was.

But he said "we are pleased this matter was heard by and decided by Norfolk citizens in an appropriate public forum via the jurors in this jury trial".

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