On March 6, 2015 Naeschylus Carter (also known by the surname Vinzant), an unarmed Black man, was shot and killed by Aurora, Colorado SWAT officer Paul Jerothe, who is white. According to Jerothe, Naeschylus allegedly removed his right hand from his jacket pocket in what was apparently such a threatening manner that it necessitated lethal force.
A grand jury was used as the mechanism to provide the legal rubber stamp justifying this killing and the announcement of its non-indictment came on December 30, 2015—while many people were still distracted by the holidays and upcoming New Years. In a relatively unusual move, the grand jury released a report of its findings. Unfortunately, that report amounts to little more than propaganda designed to justify this tragic and wholly avoidable event.
First, it’s important to point out that the reason a grand jury was implemented here has far more to do with appeasing a public sense of justice than any actual semblance of justice. This is often the case when grand juries are used to exonerate killer cops. Immediately after Naeschylus was killed almost no information was released regarding the circumstances of his killing. He was Black, unarmed, and shot once. That was about all we knew of the events that took place on March 6, 2015. The decision to use a grand jury to consider charges could’ve easily been seen as progress toward justice. Really it was little more than a façade designed to appease a potentially unruly public. Reading the report from the grand jury, this becomes even more clear.
The report from the grand jury is only 11 pages. Rather than offer an explanation as to how the grand jury came to its conclusion that the killing was justified, the entire space is dedicated to why the killing was justified. This isn’t transparency, which is part of why prosecutors use grand juries in these instances in the first place. Grand juries are shrouded in secrecy, at times for good reason. But by selectively releasing information meant only to prop up the official narrative, the report here has done more harm to transparency than good. Essentially, this grand jury report amounts to little more than an official legal document aimed at vilifying the victim and exonerating his killer.
The report begins by emphasizing alleged actions of Naeschylus four days before he was killed. These are actions that he never had the chance to even be charged with a crime for. Actions that were apparently not severe enough for a judge to grant an arrest warrant for before Naeschylus was killed. And actions that, ostensibly, had very little to do with whether his being killed was justified. The only purpose for including them in the report is to demonize Naeschylus. To lend to the sense that his death was brought on by himself, and not a trigger happy cop named Paul Jerothe.
From there the report recounts surveillance on Naeschylus in the time leading up to his killing. This reads more like the script of a television crime show than a report regarding a grand jury proceeding. It also brings in a lynchpin to Jerothe’s story: An email sent down the chain of command about Naeschylus that was allegedly, “playing in [Jerothe’s] mind,” when he fired the fatal shot. That email cited an arrest from 2013 in which Naeschylus allegedly told officers, “if he would have had a gun he would have shot it out with us or words to that effect and [the sergeant]said he believed this dude as opposed to the countless others we here (sic) it from, so just be aware.”
It seems that at no point were Jerothe or his fellow SWAT officers told Naeschylus might have a gun, or even access to one. But this alleged threat from years earlier, one that was made by “countless others” being arrested, became foundational to justifying Jerothe’s allegedly fearful state of mind when he killed Naeschylus.
The first section describing the shooting, which the report titles, “The arrest,” prefaces its findings with several unnecessary, but telling phrases. First, the reader is reassured that it’s accurate as the report claims the grand jury, “reconciled any discrepancies to determine that the facts described in this report contain an accurate description of the events which were the subject of this investigation.” How those discrepancies were reconciled, or what some of them even were, is anyone’s guess. The report is more concerned with reassuring us that it’s accurate than explaining how it came to such precise conclusions. This highlights the purpose the report is meant to serve—assuring us the system works.
It goes on to tell the reader, “Aurora SWAT officers train extensively on making safe arrests.” And, “[a]lthough arrest situations occur every day, it is rare for SWAT officers to have used deadly physical force.” The only purpose this serves is to reinforce the notion that police officers protect the peace. To emphasize the rarity in which such killings take place. But for one thing, Aurora is among the deadliest departments in the country. And for another, the frequency of such an incident does little to help us understand what happened during the actual incident.
The grand jury interviewed 24 people, there are 2200 pages of transcripts, yet the only testimony given any measurable portion of the 11 page report is Jerothe’s—the one person with everything to lose if the grand jury found any wrongdoing.
The report introduces its findings with a level of certainty that’s disturbing given the reality of what happened—an unarmed Black man was needlessly shot and killed. “The grand jury is satisfied the investigation was thorough and no additional witnesses or evidence would alter the grand jury’s conclusion.” To say this without an objective record of the event, like, video evidence, after we’ve seen story after official story crumble in the face of such evidence, is downright irresponsible. Of course there could be evidence that would alter the conclusions of this report. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous.
The report also presents the grand jury proceedings as having been, “conducted by the grand jury without bias or prejudice…” Again, this is dangerous rhetoric. Bias and prejudice are all around us, both implicit and explicit. We are all biased. We all hold prejudices. Pretending that a proceeding with 12 humans, each bringing their own biases and prejudices, within a legal system with as racist and classist roots as ours is unbiased, only furthers that system’s ability to oppress.
The grand jury was “instructed on and applied the law of Colorado which requires evaluation of Officer Jerothe’s actions in light of how the situation appeared to him. Anyone acting in self defense can act upon an apparent necessity. Apparent necessity justifies the use of deadly force to the same extent as actual danger, if, in light of all relevant evidence, a reasonable person would have acted the same way in similar circumstances.”
But here’s the catch. Jerothe made the choice to shoot in under five seconds. Like Tamir Rice and countless others, Naeschylus would still be alive had the cop who killed him given him the benefit of the doubt for only a few more seconds. Jerothe also chose to shoot without the ability to see if there was anything in Naeschylus’ right hand, which was, “blocked by the rifle and attachments as he looked through the sighting system.”
How many reasonable people would choose to kill someone, based on seeing their “right shoulder jerk back”? A motion the report says Jerothe described, “not [as]a movement of putting both hands up at the same time, but a unilateral movement only of his right arm… this action was not consistent with a smooth, fluid movement of surrender, but one of aggression.” One big problem with that description, aside from its inherent subjectivity, Naeschylus couldn’t have raised both hands. His left hand was already up—he had a cell phone to his ear.
Not only that, but whether his hand was even in his right pocket is one of the discrepancies that’s been reported. The grand jury report makes no mention of this except to reference testimony buttressing Jerothe’s story.
“As he fell to the ground his right hand came out of the jacket pocket, and when he hit the ground both of Mr. [Carter’s] hands were outside the jacket. The pathologist testified that momentum could have continued Mr. [Carter’s] movements after being shot, accounting for his right hand outside the pocket.”
Did the pathologist also testify that Naeschylus’ hand might have been out of his pocket the whole time? It seems like that’s certainly also a possible explanation as to why his hand was outside of his pocket when he hit the ground.
Another, “expert testified to the reactions of persons to traumatic events and how that shapes their perceptions and memories. The expert offered insight concerning human decision-making, witness perception, action and reaction times, observational attention, and witness recollection and memory in high-stress situations. This testimony related to the actions of Naeschylus [Carter] and Officer Jerothe, and witness testimony, memory, and recall.”
Here again we get a glimpse at what the subjects of the testimony were, but no explanation as to what the expert actually had to say about them. It seems plenty likely that this expert was also used to buffer Jerothe’s story rather than challenge it. This expert might have also been brought in to clear up another discrepancy. Reports that Jerothe initially said the shot he fired was an accidental discharge. Jerothe later said he couldn’t remember anything immediately following the killing. How. Fucking. Convenient.
It’s no stretch for me to suggest that after originally saying it was an accidental discharge Jerothe was advised of, or formulated his own, more reliably exonerating story. You see, accidental discharge doesn’t include the magic words: “I feared for my life.” By the time Jerothe gave a statement to his superiors he’d had a week to think things through.
There’s also a problem in the grand jury being exposed to selective expertise. Why didn’t they bring in an expert to talk about implicit racial biases and studies that show we’re quicker to pull the trigger on Black subjects? Did they choose an expert typically used by prosecutors or defense attorneys? Were there other experts who would’ve offered a contradicting view? (Of course there were).
These are just a few of the questions that the grand jury report doesn’t answer.
Of course, the report was never meant to answer any of these questions. It was meant to keep those who wouldn’t bother to ask them at ease. Comfortable that the system works. And it does. It works exactly as it was designed. Which is why we need to burn it to the ground and rebuild from scratch.
In addition to the 11 pages in the report from the grand jury, was the judge’s order to make it public, which was 20 pages. Here the real reason for its release is revealed—in all its tone policing, respectability politicking, paternalistic splendor.
The Court is aware that a few recent decisions by out-of-state grand juries regarding the investigation of unrelated incidents have triggered violence and civil unrest. Although the Court is an ardent advocate of free speech and a passionate supporter of the First Amendment, it urges members of the community to avoid such lamentable reactions. Some may be tempted to have a knee-jerk reaction misguidedly premised in whole or in part on the outcome of other grand jury in investigations or imprudently based on overly simplistic or uninformed analysis. The Court encourages everyone to take the time to carefully and objectively review the thorough report containing the grand jury’s extensive findings regarding this specific investigation before expressing or even forming, any opinions.
Further, no matter what opinions may be formulated, or how earnestly and vigorously they may be held, they must be expressed appropriately.
First, what “recent decisions” and “violence” is the Court referencing? Second, the Court claims to be an ardent advocate of free speech, but begins its sentence with a conditional, “although.” Third, the Court encourages everyone to review the “thorough report” and its “extensive findings.” However, as we’ve seen, the report is anything but thorough and its findings are from extensive. And fourth, the suggestion opinions be “expressed appropriately” is as condescending as can be. It’s clear that the purpose of this selective release of information was to forestall outcry from what would be a justifiably outraged public. To head off any possibility of Colorado cities having their own uprising like those seen in Baltimore and Ferguson. The question now: Will it work?