Monday, September 20, 2021

Former deputy faces manslaughter charge for the fatal shooting of white teenager in rural Arkansas, in a case drawing attention from prominent civil-rights lawyers

A protest in Arkansas for Hunter Brittain

An Arkansas deputy has been charged with manslaughter in the fatal June shooting of a white teenager near Little Rock. The incident attracted the attention of national civil-rights leaders and is seen by some as a potentially pivotal event in the drive to reform U.S. policing. From a report at Associated Press:

A special prosecutor announced the felony charge against Michael Davis, a former sergeant with the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office, in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Hunter Brittain. Davis faces between three and 10 years in prison if convicted.

Davis shot Brittain during a June 23 traffic stop outside an auto repair shop along Arkansas Highway 89 south of Cabot, a city of about 26,000 people roughly 30 miles northeast of Little Rock.

Davis told investigators he shot Brittain once in the neck during the traffic stop after the teen reached into the back of his truck and did not comply with his commands to show his hands, according to the arrest affidavit. Brittain was holding a container — which his family members have said held antifreeze — and no evidence of firearms was found in or near the truck, the affidavit said.

A passenger with Brittain said he and the teen had been working on the transmission for Brittain’s truck. The passenger told investigators he never heard Davis tell the teen to show his hands.

Davis, who is white, was fired by Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley in July for not turning on his body camera until after the shooting occurred. Staley said there’s no footage from the shooting, only the aftermath.

Several members of Brittain’s family and friends shouted, “thank you Jesus,” as Phillips announced the charge. Phillips said a bond hearing for Davis would be held on Monday.

Two of the nation's best-known civil-rights attorneys -- Ben Crump of Florida and Devon Jacob of Pennsylvania -- are representing the Brittain family. From a report at he Daily Beast:

On Friday, Jeff Phillips, a special prosecutor assigned to the case, announced that Michael Davis, the sergeant who shot Brittain, will be charged with manslaughter for “recklessly” shooting at Brittain.

According to an affidavit read by Phillips at a press conference, Brittain was test-driving a pickup truck with his cousin that the two spent the night tinkering on at a local repair shop. The car, which had transmission issues, began smoking and was pulled over by Davis as it neared the repair shop.

In an interview with investigators, Davis said that before he could put his own car in park, Brittain jumped out and moved to the rear of the truck and began reaching into the bed as it slowly rolled backward. Davis said he gave commands to Brittain to show his hands that were ignored. When Brittain was about to remove his hands from the back of the truck, Davis said he shot once before he could see what Brittain was holding.

Davis’ attorney, Robert Newcomb, previously told the Daily Beast that Davis feared the worst when Brittain hopped out and reached into the bed of his truck.

But it turned out to just be a jug of antifreeze.

A relative was riding with Brittain, and he provided an account that differed significantly from what the deputy said:

Jordan King, Brittain’s cousin who was in the car with him at the time, said Brittain hopped out with the jug to place it behind the truck’s tires—which is something the teen always did to help stop the old truck. But King said Davis never gave any commands to Brittain before he shot him.

The two conflicting narratives were hampered by the fact that Davis’ body camera was never turned on during the quick encounter. Shortly after the shooting, Davis was fired by the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office for breaking their body-camera policy.

The investigation of the shooting was quickly turned over to the Arkansas State Police. In July, Phillips, a prosecutor from a district on the other side of the state, was assigned to handle the case.

His press conference on Friday was brief and he refused to take questions. “I don’t want to jeopardize this case, it’s too important,” he said.

Crump, in a statement, said the charges were the first step “in the pursuit of justice” for Brittain, adding that his shooting was the “latest example of law enforcement shooting first and asking questions later.”

After Phillips’ announcement that a warrant would be issued for Davis’ arrest on Friday, the courtroom burst into cheers.

If convicted of manslaughter, Davis could be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison.

His attorney, Newcomb, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Wendy Lindsey, Hunter’s cousin, said in an interview shortly after the announcement on Friday that she was happy “at least something was done.” But she added that she didn’t think the manslaughter charge for Davis was enough.

“I think it’s murder,” she said. “He took a life.”


Anonymous said...

It's bad enough that the cop shot this kid, but he had to shoot him in the neck? Can't cops be trained to "wing" somebody instead of using a "kill shot" on them? And this cop didn't have a taser? Could that have been used instead of a gun?

legalschnauzer said...

You ask a number of good questions. I'm guessing cops would say trying to "wing" somebody -- shooting them in an arm or leg -- is difficult in tense, rapidly changing situations. But maybe they need better training. Shooting anybody above the shoulders obviously is a strong bet of producing a death. I don't know about the distance between Brittain's truck and the cop's car, but if effective in this case, it seems a taser would have been a better choice.

legalschnauzer said...

We've had a problem in this country for several years with cops using the most lethal, damaging option available -- and this seems to be a classic example of that. Once you shoot somebody in the neck, it's hard to bring them back.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the young woman quoted at the end of the post. You shoot somebody in the neck, that sounds a lot like murder -- the intentional taking of a life.

legalschnauzer said...

Here are details from coroner's report on Hunter Brittain's death:

According to the coroner's report on Hunter Brittain, the bullet initially went through his upper right shoulder, then into the right side of his neck affecting his trachea, esophagus, and left jugular vein.

Brittain died at the hospital following the shooting. He was fatally shot by former Lonoke County Sergeant Mike Davis during a traffic stop.

legalschnauzer said...

Brittain family reacts to charges against deputy:

Fired Lonoke County Sheriff’s Sergeant Michael Davis appeared in court for the first time Monday after spending the weekend in jail.

Davis is being charged with manslaughter following the June shooting death of 17-year-old Hunter Brittain.

The bond for the former deputy was set at $15,000.

“I really didn’t want to come but I needed to be here,” Rebecca Payne, Hunter Brittain’s grandmother said. “It’s hard to look at him.”

Davis appeared in front of a judge wearing the same blue shirt from his booking photo.

He appeared to show little facial expression while staring at the judge during the entirety of the bond hearing.

“I was hoping he’d look over and maybe apologize to the family and we didn’t get that…nothing,” Hunter’s uncle, Jesse Brittain said. “I don’t think it’s fair that my nephew Hunter is laying in a grave or refrigerator, and this man is going to get to go home.”

legalschnauzer said...

These words from Ben Crump say a lot about this cases and others like it:

Crump, in a statement, said the charges were the first step “in the pursuit of justice” for Brittain, adding that his shooting was the “latest example of law enforcement shooting first and asking questions later.”