Two Sacramento police officers won’t face criminal charges for the fatal shooting of a black man following a chase that ended in his grandparents’ yard and started a series of angry protests that roiled California’s capital city, the county’s top prosecutor announced Saturday following a nearly yearlong investigation.
Officers Terrance Mercadal and Jared Robinet acted within the law when they shot 22-year-old Stephon Clark seven times, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert concluded, noting that the evidence supported their account that Clark was moving toward them when they opened fire.
Schubert said the evidence, including their reactions captured on body cameras, supported the officers’ statements that they thought Clark was pointing a gun.
It turned out Clark was holding only a cellphone. His family and their supporters expressed anger and disappointment, and accused Schubert of unnecessarily revealing grim details of Clark’s personal life.
“Whatever his character is or his actions prior to those officers gunning him down, is no one’s business,” said Clark’s mother, SeQuette, who had a brief and contentious meeting with Schubert before the DA made her announcement. “It’s not justification. That’s not a permit to kill him.”
Schubert said the decision not to file charges against the officers “does not diminish in any way the tragedy,” adding that “We cannot ignore that there is rage within our community.”
Before Schubert had finished speaking, Black Lives Matter began a demonstration where about 100 people eventually protested peacefully in chilly rain outside Sacramento’s police headquarters.
The shooting last March prompted larger demonstrations. Protesters twice disrupted games for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, including one where they blocked thousands of fans from entering. That game was played in a nearly empty arena.
Schubert repeatedly apologized for raising the personal details during her hour-long presentation.
She revealed Clark was facing possible jail time after a domestic violence complaint two days earlier from Salena Manni, the mother of his two children. He also had researched suicide websites including those that suggested using a tranquilizer, which was among several drugs found in his system after his death.
“I can’t tell ultimately what was going on in his mind,” Schubert said. “He was in a state of despair and he was impaired, and that may have affected his judgment.”
The disclosures brought additional outcries from protest leaders and Clark’s relatives, including Manni, who said they weren’t relevant to whether the officers acted properly.
The decision continues “the shameful legacy of officers killing black men without consequences,” Manni said.
Black Lives Matter leader Tanya Faison criticized Schubert for providing details including text messages between Clark and Manni.
“Those officers didn’t know any of that when they had him in the backyard and they killed him,” Faison said.
SeQuette Clark held out the hope that her son’s death would result in systemic change, which was echoed by statements from Gov. Gavin Newsom, legislative leaders, Sacramento’s mayor and black religious leaders who urged protesters to channel their anger into positive steps.
“This is just the beginning. The fight for justice has just begun,” Clark’s mother said outside the home where her son was killed. Later, Clark’s grandmother, Sequita Thompson, was taken by ambulance to a hospital after falling ill. No details on her condition were available.
Several officials supported pending state legislation that would allow police to use deadly force only if there is no reasonable alternative, including non-lethal force or efforts to calm the situation. Newsom did not address the bill, but called for “systemic reforms that reduce inequities, increase community confidence in our criminal justice system, and that reinforce the sanctity of human life.”
Clark’s family, including his two sons, his parents and his grandparents, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in January seeking more than $20 million from the city and officers, alleging that they used excessive force and that he was a victim of racial profiling.
Attorneys for Clark’s family disputed Schubert’s conclusion by citing a competing autopsy for the family by Dr. Bennet Omalu, who said police shot Clark seven times from behind. Omalu is the pathologist whose study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football players prompted the NFL to adopt new safety rules designed to prevent concussions.
Schubert said the official autopsy showing Clark was most likely shot as he approached police was reviewed by four pathologists and two independent experts. One of them acted on behalf of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is conducting his own investigation at the request of local officials.
She also said for the first time that physical evidence showed that Clark was indeed the man who broke three vehicle windows and an elderly man’s sliding glass patio door. Previously police had not said definitively that he was the vandal they were chasing.
Enhanced video from a police helicopter showed Clark was empty handed as he jumped a fence and moved alongside his grandparents’ home before he was chased by officers. Another enhanced photo from an officer’s body camera showed a flash of light from Clark’s position near his grandparents’ back door, which Schubert said supported an officer’s statement that he thought he saw a muzzle flash from a gun. She said enhanced audio revealed Clark cursed at officers as he moved toward their position.
The Sacramento Police Officers Association and the police department did not respond to requests for comment on behalf of the two officers. But police union president Timothy Davis said in a statement that the case “illustrates how complicated and dynamic a request for police service can be.”
Sacramento police noted that they have not yet decided if the officers broke any department policies. They and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the department has since increased training, limited foot pursuits like those in the Clark case, and committed to quickly releasing videos of officer-involved shootings.
Regardless of whether officers acted legally, Steinberg said, “the outcome was wrong — he should not have died.”