BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A coroner’s inquest determined Wednesday that a Montana police officer was justified in shooting and killing an unarmed man during a traffic stop.
A seven-person jury deliberated for about an hour, delivering its decision after Billings police Officer Grant Morrison testified that he feared for his life when he fired the three shots that killed Richard Ramirez, 38.
The five-year police veteran said he became convinced the man had a gun after Ramirez reached for his waistband during their 30-second encounter, which occurred last April in a high-crime area of Montana’s largest city.
Police video showed that Morrison repeatedly ordered Ramirez and other occupants of the vehicle to raise their hands. Ramirez’s actions were largely obscured in the video, but Morrison said Ramirez dropped his left hand to his side — out of the officer’s view — and “started to jiggle it up and down.”
“I knew in that moment, which later was determined to be untrue, but I knew in that moment that he was reaching for a gun,” Morrison said. “I couldn’t take that risk. … I wanted to see my son grow up.”
Morrison shot and killed another man in 2013, and he was cleared of any wrongdoing in that case.
Coroner’s inquests are mandatory under Montana law whenever someone is killed by law enforcement or dies in custody. Recent police killings of unarmed suspects in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City have heightened scrutiny of law enforcement nationwide.
Ramirez’s family wanted criminal charges against Morrison and said the half-Mexican Ramirez was a victim of racial profiling. They said they intend to file a lawsuit.
Younger sister Renee Ramirez criticized the inquest as one-sided and said testimony that her brother was a drug user and high on methamphetamine at the time of his death was irrelevant.
“I don’t care what things my brother did in the past,” she said. “What does that have to do with shooting my brother?”
During prior testimony, a Billings police detective who investigated the case said Ramirez might have been trying to stash something when he was shot. A small amount of methamphetamine and a syringe later were found near Ramirez’s seat.
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said he does not expect to file any charges given the jury’s decision. Twito also defended the proceedings as a fair presentation of the facts.
“The videos speak for themselves,” he said.
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