After watching dash-cam videos of an incident in which an Atlanta police officer shoots a man in a passing car, a Fulton County grand jury last week did something that grand juries rarely do in Georgia: it indicted a cop for murder in the death of an unarmed civilian.
The videos were so persuasive that the 23-member grand jury took little time to vote for the murder indictment, according to one of the 23. Grand Juror No. 7 said the footage, which has not been released to the public, showed that Officer James R. Burns did not appear to be in danger when he left his patrol car and fired a single shot at Deravis Caine Rogers.
Burns, 34, had told police internal affairs investigators that he believed Rogers, 22, was trying to kill him with his car.
“He clearly lied and had there not been any cameras in the car he possibly would have gotten away with it,” said Grand Juror No. 7, who asked not to be identified by name. “When he got out of the car the gun was drawn and within four seconds he fired off a shot into a car and he didn’t know exactly who or what he was shooting.”
The indictment underscores, once again, the power of video to counter the narratives put forth by officers involved in shootings and suggests a sea change in the way such cases are prosecuted. Although roughly 200 Georgia officers have shot and killed civilians since 2010, Burns is only the second officer in that time to face criminal charges, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has shown.
But even as Burns was being charged with murder, people who know the officer said he is neither a killer nor even a hothead. An APD detective who roomed with Burns for a time said he had encouraged Burns to join the police department and that he had proven to be a model officer who advanced rapidly.
The detective, Chris Kettel, acknowledged that Burns is also an expert marksman — he had near-perfect scores on the shooting range, according to his APD file — and said Burns had helped him to improve his own shooting. According to investigators, Burns shot Rogers in the back of the head as Rogers drove past him outside the Monroe Place apartments on June 22.
Burns sat silent through the daylong grand-jury hearing last week, Grand Juror No. 7 said. Georgia law grants police officers a special privilege to make a concluding statement to the jury — literally giving the officer the last word in the proceeding. Burns, however, had nothing to say, the grand juror said.
“He did not speak,” Juror No. 7 said. “As a grand juror I was displeased. I would have wanted him to say something because he had the opportunity.”
This privilege can be a powerful shield inside a grand jury room. The AJC’s investigation last year found testimony by officers helped ensure no officer in Georgia faced criminal trial in a fatal police shooting since at least 2010.
Burns’ attorney, Drew Findling, who sat with his client throughout the grand jury hearing, would not comment about that decision.
“I’m not permitted to speak about what takes place in a grand jury,” said Findling, adding that his client is innocent of the charges against him. Findling has said he is planning a vigorous defense of Burns and questioned why Rogers didn’t stop his vehicle.
‘The driver posed no threat to you’
Burns, a rookie officer, was fired in July by Atlanta police chief George N. Turner over his actions in the shooting. In the chief’s July 1 memo to Burns announcing his decision to terminate his employment, Turner called Burns’ decision to fire “unnecessary and unreasonable.”
Burns was answering a call to back up an officer involved in a foot chase outside a northeast Atlanta apartment complex. But the chief said Burns didn’t even know whether Rogers was the suspect in a crime.
“The driver of the vehicle posed no threat to you,” Turner wrote, adding: “Yet rather than allow the driver to proceed past you, you exited your vehicle and ultimately prevented the driver from driving away through the use of deadly force.”
Dashboard cameras in two Atlanta police cars recorded at least parts of the scene, and witnesses on the street also saw the incident.
A peculiar off-duty incident
It wasn’t the first time Burns’ judgment had been questioned during his brief career in law enforcement. Less than two years earlier, during his field training period with Atlanta police, his APD file recounts a peculiar off-duty incident at the apartment complex where he lived.
His actions in July 2014, while a probationary employee, led to an internal affairs investigation, his temporary relief from duty and reprimands both written and oral, records show.
The investigation, according to a November 2014 memo, found that Burns had taken part in an unauthorized entry in a vehicle as the car’s alarm was blaring late at night in the apartment complex parking lot. Apartment management had called Burns for help and he responded wearing his department-issued bulletproof vest while carrying his personal handgun, records show.
He and a resident of the complex tried to enter the car and disarm the alarm. Their accounts differed about who used a “slim jim” device to enter the locked vehicle. (Investigators later made Burns take a lie detector test, which he passed.)
Once inside the car, the men started removing fuses from the vehicle to disarm the alarm. When that didn’t work, Burns pulled out the vehicle’s electric connector, records show. The next day, the owner of the vehicle, upset about damage to his car, called 911 and reported the incident, prompting the internal affairs review.
Investigators found fault with Burns’ actions and concluded that he broke department rules. As a probationary employee, he should have called in a supervisor to assist with such an incident. He was cited for violating a work rule that says that APD “employees will perform official acts in a reasonable manner.”
“It was clear that the actions Officer Burns took exceeded reasonableness,” the investigator’s memo said. “Especially, since he made no attempt to locate the owner of the vehicle prior to such actions.”
Burns’ mistakes were chalked up to inexperience, records show, and he was allowed to continue with the force.
‘The guy I know is not a murderer’
Burns’ background and résumé point to the type of police officer who the brass would find attractive. He grew up in Coweta County and attended Woodward Academy. He graduated from the University of Rochester with a degree in economics.
He listed his college roommate, Christopher Kinkade, as a character reference on his application when he applied for the Atlanta police job in July 2013.
Kinkade, now an attorney in New Jersey and New York, saw his friend in March at Burns’ wedding, which was at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation.
Kinkade described Burns as a solid person who is loyal to his friends and extremely close to his family.
“The guy I know is not a murderer,” he said.
The two played rugby together in college and Kinkade said his friend is someone who “could handle stressful situations better than I could and better than most people.”
“It’s hard for me to imagine him doing something without thinking something through,” Kinkade said.
Worked security jobs around the globe
After graduating from college in 2006, Burns, who goes by his middle name, Rolfe, spent several years working overseas with humanitarian groups in developing countries in Africa and Asia.
His most recent assignment before applying to the Atlanta police, was with CARE. He worked with the Atlanta-based worldwide humanitarian group in operational security jobs from 2010 to 2013. His work included supporting security needs of field staff, “especially in high-risk countries of Pakistan, Haiti and Somalia,” and coordinating operations with diplomatic security, according to the employment history Burns listed on his APD application.
In responding to a question on his application about the most serious thing he’d done in his life, Burns said he once evacuated a congressional delegation from Haiti. Under special training, he listed: Security risk management training, hostage incident communication training and hostile environment awareness training.
Detective Kettel, Burns’ onetime roommate, heard some of Burns’ stories from overseas. The two lived at an apartment complex off DeKalb Avenue.
Kettel said Burns was someone who wanted to help people.
On his application essay about why he wanted to become an officer, Burns said he wished to advance his personal and professional goals and “give back to the community I know and love.”
“I have worked in hostile and insecure environments all over the world and have gained valuable experience as an effective operator,” he said. “However, I have much to learn. … I believe this department is ideal for me to begin my career in law enforcement.”
‘Don’t think I’ve ever seen him get mad’
After Burns joined the department, Kettel was a bit of a mentor to his old roommate, Kettel said.
The job was not without its harrowing moments. In February, a routine traffic stop less than a mile from Monroe Place — the site of the fatal shooting in June — quickly turned dangerous. After Burns stopped a vehicle for an illegal U-turn near Piedmont Avenue and Adina Drive, the motorist tried to drive off. The car dragged Burns 68 feet down the road before he could gain control of the man’s steering wheel and bring the vehicle to a stop, records show.
Burns was uninjured but, Kettel said, he was shaken by the incident.
Still, Kettle said he never saw his friend lose his cool.
“He was never a hothead,” Kettel said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him get mad. A very well-trained guy, never expressed any hatred.”