Crime & Courts

District attorney: No charges against trooper in fatal shooting of deaf driver

The Mecklenburg District Attorney will not bring charges against a state trooper who fatally shot a deaf driver in Charlotte last August after a high-speed chase.

District Attorney Andrew Murray announced Monday that Trooper Jermaine Saunders had legal justification to fire the shot that killed Daniel Harris not far from his north Charlotte home.

Murray’s findings were included in a 122-page report that included details on the chase and other events leading up to Harris’ killing, including a statement that Harris ran at the trooper with a metal object in his hand. Saunders told investigators he thought Harris was carrying a weapon. It turned out to be a metal carabiner key ring.

Murray also raised the possibility that Harris was undergoing a “mental health crisis” during the confrontation.

Prosecutors said Harris had a history of mental illness and had been in a psychiatric hospital in Florida for seven years. In 2015, after Harris was arrested in Kansas for fleeing a police traffic stop, a psychological assessment said Harris regularly “perceives something telling him to stab himself or someone else,” the report states.

“Given the choices faced by Trooper Saunders, the compressed window of time in which he had to evaluate the situation and act, along with the stress of the situation, I have concluded it was not unreasonable for Trooper Saunders to fire his weapon,” Murray wrote.

Jay Harris, the dead man’s brother, said the family disagrees with Murray’s decision and allege that “relevant information was excluded from the report.” According to Jay Harris, Saunders told several people on the scene that he could not see what Harris was carrying in his hands, and only mentioned the metal object in later interviews with the State Bureau of Investigation.

Charlotte attorney Will DeVore, who is representing the family, took particular exception of prosecutors’ release of Daniel Harris medical information, which he said had no relevance to the criminal case or any civil action the family might bring because Saunders was not aware of Harris’ past mental problems at the time.

“The District Attorney did not ask for the family’s consent to publish any of Daniel’s medical information,” DeVore said, “and it is my belief that this information (was used) to justify a conclusion.”

“While we will never know why Daniel fled from the police over a traffic violation, his actions toward Officer Saunders did not warrant the taking of his life,” DeVore said.

Murray said he included Harris’ mental history in the report not to disparage him but “so people might understand how this could happen.”

The chase

Criminal charges in police use of deadly force are rare in Mecklenburg County. In the past 35 years, only one officer – Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick in 2013 – has been charged in connection with an on-duty shooting. That case ended in a mistrial, and the manslaughter charge against Kerrick dismissed.

The legal standard for the use of deadly force is what is known as “objective reasonableness,” meaning would a reasonable officer in the same circumstances have responded the same way. Officers have the right to fire their weapons if they have a reasonable fear of death or serious injury for themselves or others.

Murray says witness accounts and physical evidence show “that Trooper Saunders retreated from Harris before firing the shot that killed Harris,” Murray wrote. “There is no evidence that Harris being deaf played any role in this incident.”

Jay Harris singled out that that comment is a “red flag for the extreme miscommunication and disconnect between the deaf community and law enforcement. Police must receive appropriate training for interacting with a large part of our population.”

The chase between Harris and Saunders began the evening of Aug. 18 when Saunders reported that a blue Volvo passed him going 88 mph. The chase appeared to escalate from there. Murray said multiple witnesses on Interstate 485 reported the Volvo swerving in and out of traffic, at speeds reaching 100 mph.

Harris, according to prosecutors, lost control of his car once during the chase. Saunders “spun the Volvo out on two occasions.” After one of the times Saunders tried to run Harris off the road, a witness described Harris as appearing “confused” as he sat in his car, gesturing with hands up in the air “as if asking what was going on,” the report says.

Another witness to the chase said Harris’ car came within a few feet of his as it sped up the off ramp to Rocky River Road.

Harris, he said, made a “goofy, almost laughing expression” that led him to believe he was on some kind of drug. Harris, according to this witness, “seemed not to care how reckless he was being ... and was acting bat-s*** crazy.”

According to Murray’s statement, after spinning Harris out, Saunders approached the Volvo with his gun drawn, banged on the vehicle and ordered Harris to get out. Saunders, however, took cover when he said Harris appeared to be reaching for something in the car, prosecutors say.

Harris sped off, leading the trooper into the Seven Oaks neighborhood where his family lived. A neighbor, according to prosecutors, saw Harris’ approach. He told authorities that two of the Volvo’s tires were blown and that he feared the car was going to strike him as it passed.

In the neighborhood, Saunders exited his car with his gun drawn and his left arm raised in a “stop” gesture. He told prosecutors that he yelled at Harris several times to “Stop, let me see your hands” before firing a shot into Harris’ chest when the driver was 2 to 4 feet away, Murray says.

Saunders told state investigators that “I was in fear for my life” and that he thought Harris intended to assault him with a metal weapon. “It was clear to me that he wasn’t going to give up for anything,” Saunders said, according to the report.

One witness, described in the report as a former law enforcement officer now working as a security guard, followed the chase into the neighborhood. According to Murray, the witness told authorities that Harris ran screaming at the trooper “with his hands spread and his eyes and mouth wide open,” Murray said.

The neighbor added: “It looked like he was coming for the cop.”

Two experts in law enforcement training told the Observer last year that Saunders’ decision to mount a high-speed chase may have escalated the incident beyond what was needed to make a safe arrest.

[READ MORE: Chase of deaf driver reached 100 mph before fatal shooting]

Recent cases

Murray’s announcement marks the fourth time in the last two months that his office has cleared police of criminal wrongdoing in fatal shootings.

The Sept. 21 shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott set off several days of rioting in parts of uptown, but Murray ruled on Nov. 30 that Scott was armed and presented a reasonable threat before he was killed outside his north Charlotte home.

On Dec. 12, prosecutors said police acted in self-defense when they shot and killed Rodney Rodriguez Smith, 18, after he opened fire on them at a Charlotte bus stop.

On Jan. 3, prosecutors said CMPD Officer O.M. Lester was justified when he shot and killed Sylasone Ackhavong outside a north Charlotte convenience store. Police say the suspect was armed and standing on a car at the time.

Last week, authorities say a CMPD undercover officer shot and killed Josue Diaz after a hit-and-run in east Charlotte. Authorities say Diaz fired at least one shot at the officer. The investigation continues.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS