GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The officer who shot and killed Patrick Lyoya during a traffic stop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, will be charged with second-degree murder.
Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker announced Thursday that his office had filed the charge against Grand Rapids Police Department Officer Chris Schurr, who he said turned himself in. Online records showed he was in the Calhoun County Jail.
Becker said he informed the Lyoya family in a phone call of his decision before holding a news conference Thursday afternoon at Michigan State Police Sixth District Headquarters to make the charge public.
Becker said a felony firearms charge is not viable in this case because Michigan law prevents it from being used in cases in which officers use deadly force.
The shooting happened April 4.
Video released by GRPD shows that Officer Chris Schurr pulled Lyoya over, Lyoya ran away and there was a struggle that included Lyoya grabbing Schurr’s stun gun.
Schurr, who was on top of Lyoya trying to hold him down, shot Lyoya in the back of the head.
The shooting was caught on home surveillance camera and recorded by a bystander on a cellphone. Part of the scuffle between Schurr and Lyoya was recorded by Schurr’s body camera, but that camera turned off midway through the altercation.
MSP investigated the shooting separately from GRPD, which is standard protocol. Becker got the bulk of MSP’s investigation weeks ago but had to wait several more weeks to get additional forensic reports from the manufacturer of the officer’s body camera and stun gun.
Lyoya, 26, was a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who came to the U.S. several years ago. He had two children.
During Thursday’s announcement, Becker thanked the Lyoya family for “their tremendous patience and understanding as this process has developed.” He spoke of the “emotions they must be going through. I deeply appreciate what they’ve done…their calls for peace and calm.”
Becker said he consulted use-of-force experts while making his decision. But he said the charges are not meant as a message to police.
“I’m never big on sending messages with charges,” he said. “I’m not thinking that Kent County officers or any police officers in general thought they had a license to do something like this.”
A first-degree murder charge would have required premeditation, which Becker said didn’t apply in this case. The elements of second-degree murder require that there was a death, that it was intentional and that it could not be justified by self defense.
Becker said his office also considered a lesser manslaughter charge, which a jury could consider. That would be punishable by up to 15 years in prison. He said Thursday that he hopes the decision helps clarify the role of the prosecutor’s office.
“Everybody thinks the prosecutor is just an arm or a branch of the police. We’re not,” Becker said. “We are our own entity. We have a duty to enforce the law, be it on police or the public. Very often we disagree on cases. We disagree on things that happen. We are a separate entity and our duty is public safety. We work a lot with them but we don’t work for them, and I think law enforcement in Kent County understands that. We understand that.”
Becker said he will handle the prosecution himself.
Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom intentionally waited for the outcome of the state police investigation before deciding what to do about Schurr’s employment. He announced in a news conference with other city leaders late Thursday afternoon that he was taking the initial steps to fire him.
“I recognize the impact this will have on a longtime employee and a friend to many at the Grand Rapids Police Department, but I think it is the right thing to do,” Winstrom said.
Under an officer’s contract, the termination process starts with a recommendation from the chief to the city manager. As the process moves forward, Schurr will be suspended without pay. He had been on paid administrative leave since the shooting, which is standard procedure after any officer uses deadly force.
Winstrom said he respects Becker’s decision and has no reason to believe it was wrong.
Lyoya attorneys react
During a news conference in Detroit after Becker’s decision, Lyoya’s father Peter Lyoya thanked the prosecutor and those who have supported his family.
“My heart was really broken in these last two months because a lot of things were said. I wasn’t quite sure of the truth in my head, and I was thinking there was maybe no justice in America,” Peter Lyoya said. “Patrick is not coming back. We are not going to see him again. And to say that the police officer will be charged, that brings a little bit of consolation to our family.”
Sitting next to Lyoya’s father, the family’s attorney Ven Johnson praised the decision to charge Schurr.
“I hope (Becker) and anybody would understand the past two months has felt like an eternity to the Lyoya family,” Johnson said. “We don’t mean any disrespect about how long it took, but when your son is shot in the back of the head by a police officer in the line of duty … to the family, it felt like forever.”
He also acknowledged the charge is not a guarantee of a conviction and said he was certain Schurr’s defense team would argue self-defense. Johnson said there was a “long road ahead” before there was justice.
Appearing at the news conference via video call, famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is also representing the Lyoya family, called the charges “more than appropriate.”
He said the charge shows that what Schurr did “is wrong. It is wrong.”
While the road to justice for Patrick and his family has just begun, this decision is a crucial step in the right direction. 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.”Attorney Ben Crump
Johnson questioned why the recording of the incident was turned off midway through. He says he’s skeptical that the three seconds of pressure necessary to turn the camera off could have been unintentional.
Kent County Commissioner Robert S. Womack, who has been working with the Lyoya family, questioned why the shooting was captured by a Ring camera and buy a witness’s cellphone but not by police video equipment.
Johnson also said the family would be formally asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether Lyoya’s civil rights were violated.
The police officers’ union that represents Schurr previously said in a statement that it was confident “a thorough review of this entire situation will show that a police officer has the legal right to protect themselves and community in a volatile dangerous situation such as this, in order to return to his/her family at the end of their shift.”
Legal expert: Second-degree murder charge ‘big’
“This is significant on a number of different levels,” says Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Professor Mark Dotson. “This is big. This is big.”
He said he was surprised with the decision, since current and former police chiefs previously said they expected an involuntary manslaughter charge.
The next hurdle for the prosecutor, Dotson said, will be selecting the jury. He will have to try to weed out potential jurors who already don’t like officers or who might be related to an officer or is already deferential.
“I think there is sufficient evidence to support the second-degree charge and I think he (the prosecutor) should be able to carry that burden if it eventually goes to trial,” Dotson said.
On Thursday, the Grand Rapids NAACP said it agrees with the prosecutor’s decision, saying in part: “There have been too many incidents where people of color have been killed at the hands of law enforcement, whose top priority should be to protect and serve all citizens.”
Grand Rapids NAACP said it hopes Schurr will be convicted.
“Although this is a step in the right direction, we hope that all involved in this next phase will operate without bias and ultimately, Officer Christopher Schurr will be convicted for his heinous actions,” it said.
Grand Rapids promises reform work
Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said Thursday afternoon that work on police reform is more urgent than ever.
“I, along with my colleagues, remain committed to working with our city manager, our police chief, our director of public oversight and accountability, our community partners … and our residents as we strive to make long-term systemic changes that crate a safer and a better community for everyone,” said Bliss. “That is our commitment today and that is the commitment we will continue to have.”
City Manager Mark Washington promised the city would keep looking at use of body cams, traffic stop analysis, the deployment of officers, how officers interact with residents, the role of the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability and Civilian Appeals Board, and the implementation anti-violence programs.
The union for GRPD command officers declined to comment Thursday. The union for rank-and-file officers did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Schurr’s arraignment was scheduled for Friday. If convicted, Schurr, 31, of Grandville, could spend the rest of his life in prison, though he would have the possibility of parole.