In a sign of how public sentiment is shifting in police shooting cases, a Fulton County grand jury on Wednesday indicted a former Atlanta police officer for murder and other charges for the June 22 shooting of an unarmed black man.
Former officer James Burns was indicted on five felony counts in connection with the shooting of Deravis Caine Rogers, who was shot in the head as he drove around Burns’ vehicle near a northeast Atlanta apartment complex. In addition to murder, grand jurors returned true bills of indictment on a charge of aggravated assault, two counts of violating his oath of office and one count of making a false statement.
The murder indictment of a police officer in a fatal shooting ends a string of several frustrated efforts by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard in which the grand jury failed to indict the officer, in part, because of the officer’s ability to testify and sway grand jurors.
Howard credited the power of the evidence in the case for leading to the grand jury’s decision Wednesday. He said two police dash cam videos that captured parts of the incident, and two eyewitnesses who saw the shooting helped his prosecution team build the case for indicting Burns.
“It made the presentation of the case much different from some of the cases that we’ve presented,” said Howard, adding that the police investigation into the shooting showed that “the officer did not know anything about the person in the car and without knowing any specific facts he ended up making a decision that ended up being exactly the wrong decision.”
Burns, 34, shot and killed Rogers before the shooting of black men in Baton Rouge, La., and Falcon Heights, Minn., in early July prompted demonstrations in major cities across the country, including Atlanta.
But Rogers’ case attracted local protests and attention following those shootings, and demonstrators from the Black Lives Matter movement put pressure on Atlanta Police Chief George N. Turner, Mayor Kasim Reed and Howard to make an example out of the Atlanta officer.
Turner, however, was already a step ahead. He initiated APD’s internal investigation into the shooting almost immediately, finding that Burns was unjustified in firing his gun at Rogers, and moved to terminate the officer July 1, less than 10 days after the shooting.
Wednesday’s indictment seemed to vindicate the agency’s handling of the case.
“The Department stands by its decision to dismiss James Burns for his excessive and unnecessary use of force,” APD said in a statement after the indictment. “We set high standards for our personnel and always expect them to strive for excellence.”
Howard charged Burns with murder, aggravated assault and violating his oath of office the week that Burns’ firing became public, minimizing the potential for the case to become a flash point for protests and demonstrations in Atlanta. At the time, Howard vowed that Burns would be treated like any other suspect.
In the past, he had taken police shooting cases to the grand jury without first arresting the officer, a deference that has been typically given to police officers in Georgia who shoot and kill civilians in questionable cases.
From 2010 to 2015, not a single Georgia police officer had faced criminal charges for shooting and killing a civilian, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/WSB-TV investigation found. In 2016, there have now been two, including the murder charge against Burns.
‘Not guilty’ says attorney
Burns, who left the Fulton County courthouse without commenting, now faces the potential of life in prison if convicted of murder. His attorney, Drew Findling, vowed a vigorous defense of the officer, who had only been on the Atlanta force less than two years at the time of the shooting.
“He’s not guilty of any of these charges,” Findling said after the grand jury met.
Findling signaled that his defense will hinge on his client’s belief that his life was in danger. He made clear that his defense will include the question of why Rogers failed to stop his car when his client turned on his blue lights and ordered him to stop.
Burns drove up to a street near apartment buildings and parked his patrol car. He saw a car drive toward him and commanded the vehicle to stop. The driver kept driving and Burns shot through the passenger side window, admitting later that he did not know if the driver was the suspect being pursued by the other officer.
“It’s crushing,” Findling said of the grand jury’s decision. “It is crushing because what he was doing was responding to an officer in need. The question becomes his perception is that his life was in danger and he believes that car was accelerating at him. That was his reasonable belief.”
His bullet struck Rogers in the head, and the 22-year-old died later.
Family sees justice for son
Rogers’ father, Deravis Thomas, spoke to the grand jury, but he would not comment about what he said. After the indictment was handed down, Thomas was surrounded by family members and supporters outside the courthouse.
He seemed relieved that the family had overcome a major hurdle in their push for justice for their son.
At one point, the family and supporters marched around the courthouse to show their determination.
“I’m overwhelmed right now because this is unheard of and unseen in these cases,” Thomas said. “This is a first step in getting justice for our son, justice for Caine.”
Early news reports suggested that Rogers was a suspect in car break-ins at the time he was shot.
But in the investigation that followed, Atlanta police said they found no evidence that cars had been broken into at the apartment complex, or that Rogers was the suspect in any crime.
Full day of testimony
Wednesday’s grand jury hearing lasted most of the day and included testimony from several witnesses, including Atlanta Police Chief George Turner.
DA Howard credited Turner’s testimony before the grand jury for helping the case. Turner said his testimony lasted about five minutes and focused on the department’s administrative processes. He said grand jurors did not ask him any questions.
Howard would not say if Burns made a statement to the grand jury and Findling would not comment about whether his client spoke or not. Burns was allowed to be in the grand jury room the entire day and listen to the evidence alongside his attorney. If the shooting had occurred after July 1, new grand jury rules for officers would have only allowed him in the room to make a statement.
Demonstrators with Black Lives Matter maintained a 24-hour vigil outside the courthouse that began Tuesday evening and lasted throughout the day Wednesday.
“First and foremost, we want an indictment,” said Anana Parris, founder of the social justice organization Sister Care Alliance, before grand jurors returned with their decision.
Staff writer Lauren Foreman contributed to this report.