A neighbor who says he witnessed the final seconds before a state trooper’s fatal shooting of a deaf Charlotte man says another highway patrol car arrived first and blocked the street, setting up last week’s deadly confrontation between Daniel Harris and Trooper Jermaine Saunders.
Mark Barringer, a resident of the Seven Oaks neighborhood, said he saw the end of the 7-mile chase between Harris and Saunders. He said Saunders appears to have crashed his car into a tree entering the neighborhood. When the trooper drove by, Barringer said, heavy, white smoke was coming from under the hood.
Barringer’s account adds new details to what has been a curtain of silence surrounding Harris’s death. The State Bureau of Investigation did not respond to emails attempting to confirm what Barringer says he saw.
While an SBI spokesman said agency investigators were scheduled to meet with Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray this week, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office said Friday that no such meeting has been scheduled and likely would not be held until the investigation is complete.
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A source familiar with the case told the Observer that Saunders’ car did not carry a video cam. Nor was Saunders believed to be wearing a body camera. Earlier this week, the SBI was still seeking witnesses.
SBI spokesman Shannon O’Toole says the autopsy and toxicology reports on Harris will take about three months. As part of Department of Public Safety policy, Saunders was placed on administrative leave after the shooting. O’Toole said the trooper, on the force since 2014, met with SBI investigators Tuesday night.
The series of events that turned a traffic stop for speeding into the fatal shooting of an unarmed deaf man has left Harris’ family and friends grieving and confused. Barringer says he was taking his recycling to the curb when he heard a police siren wailing down Seven Oaks Drive. He said his view from his home on Yaupon Drive was blocked by a hill. But he believes the patrol car stopped near the house Harris shared with his family members.
Barringer said he never saw Harris’ car arrive from the opposite direction. But a second trooper car – blue lights flashing, smoke coming from the hood – came into view and began to slow. He said he believes Saunders was behind the wheel.
“The highway patrol car was definitely smoking. It appeared to have been an aggressive car chase,” Barringer said. “I got a clue that this was not going to end well.”
Six to 10 seconds after Saunders’ car disappeared behind the hill, Barringer said he heard a single gunshot. He says he ran toward it.
There, about 150 away, Barringer said he saw Harris’ body lying in the street, a few houses down from his family’s home. Two state trooper cars were parked nearby. It appeared that the first trooper car had blocked Harris from getting to his driveway, Barringer said.
Later, Barringer said he discovered a heavily damaged crepe myrtle at the neighborhood entrance about a half mile away. There was also a trail of what appeared to be radiator fluid leading to the shooting scene.
‘A reasonable belief’
According to public records, Harris, 29, was twice charged with resisting arrest in 2010. He was found guilty in Connecticut; in Florida, the charge was dropped.
His family members, who are also deaf, believe Harris may not have heard or understood the troopers’ commands. Neighbors have speculated that Saunders misinterpreted Harris’ gestures as he tried to communicate.
Criminal charges against officers for on-duty shootings are exceedingly rare; for troopers even more so. About 1,000 cases of police deadly force occur nationally each year. Since 2005, only 75 have led to arrests of the officers involved, says Phillip Stinson of Bowling Green State University, who tracks police shootings. Of those arrests, only four were state troopers.
According to a statement from Murray’s office, charges are only filed against an officer when there is “a reasonable likelihood” that they can lead to a unanimous conviction by a jury.
In North Carolina and nationwide, shootings are considered justified if officers acted on the “reasonable” belief that they or others were in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.
Mecklenburg has had only one officer arrested for an on-duty shooting in the past four decades. That was Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall Kerrick, who was charged in 2013 and was acquitted two years later following a hung jury at his manslaughter trial.
Murray recused himself from that case. But he chose not to be bring charges in at least four fatal police shootings since 2012. The gap between the shootings and Murray’s announcement that they were justified ranged from 1-5 months.
Researcher Maria David contributed.