A Missouri sheriff's deputy is back on the job after a special prosecutor refused to bring criminal charges in the fatal shooting of a 25-year-old Sedalia woman during a traffic stop last June.
Hannah Fizer was unarmed, but the prosecutor apparently bought the deputy's story that Fizer threatened to shoot him. The traffic stop was caught on video, embedded at the end of this post. From a report at kshb.com:
A Pettis County, Missouri, sheriff's deputy is back at work after no charges were filed in the shooting death of Hannah Fizer.
A special prosecutor appointed to examine the case decided last September not to file charges against the deputy.
The deputy shot and killed Fizer, 25, on June 13 in a parking lot between the Sedalia Asian Buffet and Catfish restaurant.
Fizer was on her way to work when the deputy pulled her over for careless driving, according 41 Action News coverage of the shooting.
Captain Tolbert Rowe of the Pettis County Sheriff's Office told 41 Action News Fizer told the deputy she had a weapon and was going to shoot the deputy.
She went for something in the car and the deputy shot her, Rowe said.
How did the prosecutor reach a conclusion that no charges were warranted? From a news account, at kmbc.com:
The special prosecutor appointed in the case of a Sedalia, Missouri, woman shot and killed by a Pettis County Sheriff’s Deputy during a traffic stop said in a letter that he won’t file charges in the case.
Attorney Stephen Sokoloff, appointed as special prosecutor on the case in August, addressed the judge in a letter Monday stating he reviewed the investigation file, which included reports from DDCC investigators, witness statements, statements from the officer involved as well as from other officers, a copy of victim Hannah Fizer’s toxicology report, surveillance video from a nearby business and dispatch audio recordings around the time of the shooting.
“There are aspects of the case that lead me to believe that an alternative approach might have avoided the confrontation that led to the officer having to discharge his weapon,” Sokoloff wrote, also adding that is not relevant to any criminal liability in the case.
Sokoloff said that “the shooting, albeit possibly avoidable, was justifiable under current Missouri criminal law.”
The letter states that evidence shows Fizer was stopped for multiple traffic violations before refusing to provide any information to the officer. Fizer reportedly told the deputy she was recording him, and then shortly after that, that she had a gun and was going to shoot him.
The attorney said that just before the deputy shot Fizer, that Fizer had reached down into the floorboard of the car and raised up toward the deputy. Fizer’s movements inside the vehicle were reportedly clear on surveillance video. Fizer’s threats stating that she had a gun and was going to shoot the deputy were also heard on the officer’s radio dispatch just before he shot Fizer.
“Based on the information and circumstances available to the officer during the event, it cannot be said that the officer did not have a reasonable belief that he was in danger of serious physical injury or death from the actions of the deceased at the time he fired,” Sokoloff wrote.
Sokoloff stated in the letter that under Missouri law, when an officer is in a position of using deadly force in self-defense, the legal standard requires a reasonable belief by the officer that the officer is in imminent danger.
“The reasonableness of the officer’s belief must be evaluated based on how circumstances reasonably appeared to the officer at the time, not based on how those circumstances may have later been discovered actually to have been,” Sokoloff said.
Sokoloff suggested in his letter that law-enforcement officers need improved training to defuse tense situations. Why the Fizer traffic stop became tense remains unclear. The deputy's name apparently has not been released to the public, although the sheriff is touting his department's transparency:
In the letter Sokoloff said more training on de-escalation
techniques, and more experience, may be needed in many situations like
this one. “The recent spate of these types of avoidable deaths would
certainly suggest that a reexamination of training techniques is in
Pettis County Sheriff Kevin Bond said he and his department ensured the case would be handled in a professional, independent manner.
“This has ensured transparency and
thoroughness of the investigation and subsequent prosecutorial review,”
Bond said. “We at the Sheriff’s Office have allowed to Rule of Law to
properly take its course, and we await delivery of the report to
complete our internal investigation into the matter.
“Our hearts continue to go out to the Fizer family, and we encourage calmness in the community as we work together to reduce the polarization this emotional and traumatic event has caused.”
Fizer's family and friends are struggling with the prosecutor's decision:
Janet Uplinger has been a friend of Hannah's parents for many years. "There was no justice here. At all."
June 13th was supposed to be another night of work at a Sedalia gas station for Hannah. Uplinger said the 25-year-old was well-known by all of her customers.
"She was so nice when they went in there, and helpful," Uplinger said. "It seems like she never had a bad day at all."
As she headed to work that night, Hannah was stopped by a Pettis County Sheriff's Deputy. According to court documents, the deputy said she told him she was recording him, she had a gun, and was going to shoot him.
Investigators said Hannah was reaching into the floorboard of the car and when she raised up, that's when the deputy fired his weapon.
After an investigation and search of the car, The Missouri State Highway Patrol stated no weapons were in her car.
"It was all what the deputy said. Of course, it was 'she had a gun. She told me she was going to shoot me." Uplinger added.
The deputy was not wearing a body camera, as cameras purchased four years prior had technical failures and were never reinstated.
Stephen Sokoloff, General Counsel for the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services, was appointed to the case to decide whether or not charges would be filed. In Sokoloff's decision, he said although the fatal shooting may have been avoidable, it was justified.
"He said avoidable but justifiable. That never made any sense to us," Uplinger said. "How do you just tell a family the case is closed whenever so many questions have not been answered?"
Uplinger said the case is far from closed as work continues through family attorneys.
"Things are happening all the time in this county and it just feels like everything gets swept under the rug. There's just too many things here that don't add up.