SALT LAKE CITY — A West Valley police officer who shot and killed a 20-year-old man holding a screwdriver inside a garage will not be criminally prosecuted.
But Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill stopped short Friday of officially declaring the officer's use of force legally justified because Gill still doesn't know with certainty why the officer fired his weapon three times.
"Officer (Nicholaus) Green declined to be interviewed in connection with this incident, as is his constitutional right. As such, it remains unclear what he was thinking or feeling, or even what he saw, when he discharged his service weapon," Gill wrote in his final report.
On April 8, West Valley police officers were running after Elijah James Smith, 20, following a shoplifting incident at a nearby phone store. Smith ran into a house at 3551 S. Jenelles Bay, and then into an attached garage. The house was occupied by three children, ages 13, 10 and 8. No adults were home at the time. The children told officers they did not know the man who had run into their house.
When they entered the garage, Green and officer Phillip Wright had their guns drawn while officer George Martinez had his Taser ready.
As officers entered the garage, they yelled several times, "West Valley police!" "Put your hands up!" and "Make yourself known," the report states.
Smith was found hiding in a corner. Two officers stayed on a stairway looking down on the scene, while another moved around to the side of Smith. Initially, both of Smith's hands were empty. But as the officers shouted at him to raise both his hands, Smith only raised his left hand, Gill said. His right hand appeared to be moving in and out of the pocket of his hoodie, Gill said.
As Smith continued to walk slowly toward officers, he pulled a seven-inch screwdriver out of his hoodie with his right hand. Martinez fired his Taser and Green fired his gun. Both events happened within two seconds of each other, Gill said. Wright would later tell investigators that he was about to shoot his gun if Green had not done so already.
Of the three rounds that were fired, one struck Smith in the neck, killing him.
Nine days after the shooting, West Valley police released body camera videos from each of the officers to the media.
"From the time the officers opened the garage door until the shots were fired was approximately 24 seconds. They told him 15 times in those 24 seconds to show them his hands and to come out from hiding. And he had his hands out at one point. He chose to conceal both his hands and his person as he moved behind the car," West Valley's police chief said in April.
Martinez would later testify to investigators reviewing the officer-involved shooting that Smith's behavior was "erratic" considering he had nowhere to run at that point. Once Smith pulled the screwdriver out and held it up, "he had no time to do anything but pull the trigger," according to the report.
Wright described Smith's movements as a "draw-stroke," as if he were preparing to attack, the report states.
In this case, with the three body camera videos and the testimonies of officers Martinez and Wright, Gill said the totality of the evidence made it reasonable to conclude that Green would have been cleared if the shooting were pursued criminally in court.
However, because Green declined to be interviewed, Gill said Friday that he could not say for certain whether Green fired because he feared for his life or if he possibly shot his gun in reaction to the Taser being deployed.
"If you are asking me right now what was going through that officer's mind at the time he made the decision to pull that trigger, I could not tell you why. What I can tell you is all the evidence that is available to me, which would be presented in court," he said. "I don't know what goes through your mind if you were to pull a trigger. There may be a whole host of reasons. It may be you were in fear of your life or it could be a whole host of reasons."
Gill met with Smith's family for more than two hours Friday before publicly announcing his decision to explain to them how he reached his conclusion. While he said they were gracious, Gill said the family, too, questioned why the officer did not have to explain his actions.
"I'm not going to deny anyone their constitutional right. But it certainly does change the dynamics (of my investigation), and we have to continue to figure out how I can meet my obligation to try and make sense of (what happened and) a desire from our community to want have these answers. And that was a question the family had. They wanted to know … they were struggling with why an officer wouldn't make that statement," Gill said. "I know for that family, they will never know why this happened with the certainty that they had hoped to know."
But Gill said it is a growing trend for officers involved in critical incidents to remain silent, invoking their constitutional right not to incriminate themselves.
"You are starting to see a trend of officers being less (willing) to speak, and certainly you are starting to see that here as well, more so probably in the last eight months or so," he said.
Last week, Gill ruled that Granite School District police officer Jonathan Sidhu was legally justified in shooting Jonathan "Johnny" Barajas-Macias, 17, on March 20, after Barajas-Macias hit him with his car, causing Sidhu to go onto the car's hood and windshield.
Sidhu declined to be interviewed for the officer-involved critical incident review. Barajas-Macias, who survived the shooting, also declined to be interviewed.
Attorney Steven Killpack, who represents Smith's parents, said the family was hopeful that Green would make a statement as to why he shot their son. But he said they also respected the fact that police officers are afforded the same constitutional rights as regular citizens. He noted, however, that the family was hopeful that those in government or public service might be held to a higher standard in the future.
The family also is hoping for changes in how officers confront offenders in the future, he said.9 comments on this story
"The family is still extremely traumatized by the entire incident and wish more could be done legislatively to guide the situation that came up and use of force, when it needs to be used and when it doesn't," Killpack said.
Killpack also had praise for Gill's office for showing his clients "great dignity and compassion" by meeting with them Friday morning and answering all of their questions.
Regarding Green's status with West Valley police, spokeswoman Roxanne Vainuku said, "He continues on modified assignment pending the results of our internal review."