MARKSVILLE, La. (AP) — The head of the Louisiana State Police called it the most disturbing thing he’s seen: a 6-year-old autistic boy’s lifeless body, strapped into the front seat of a car riddled with bullets fired by two law enforcement officers.
Video from a police officer’s body camera captured the burst of gunfire and gruesome aftermath of the shooting that killed first-grader Jeremy Mardis and critically wounded his father.
The recording of the November 2015 traffic stop also showed the father with his hands raised inside his car as two deputy city marshals opened fire. At least four of their 18 shots tore into Jeremy.
“He didn’t deserve to die like that,” State Police Col. Mike Edmonson said as he announced their arrests after the shooting, which exposed tensions between law enforcement and residents of Marksville, a central Louisiana town of roughly 5,500 people.
On Monday, jury selection began in the second-degree murder and attempted murder trial of Derrick Stafford. The other deputy city marshal, Norris Greenhouse Jr., awaits a separate trial on the same charges.
State District Judge William Bennett, prosecutors and defense attorneys questioned the first of hundreds of prospective jurors, asking if they’ve seen the bodycam video.
Attorneys also asked if race might influence their verdict, or if they’ve heard arguments that race was a factor in the investigation. Both officers are black, both victims white.
A black woman who had seen the video said race wouldn’t influence her view, but added that it was “pretty obvious” others had already decided race was a factor in the case.
“But is that something you feel is important?” the judge asked.
“Oh, no,” the woman said.
The attorneys also questioned them about their attitudes toward law enforcement.
“There are some that feel they are above the law,” a black woman said.
Defense attorney Christopher LaCour asked a panel of 14 prospective jurors if they had ever used a racial epithet.
“I was born in the ’50s. I grew up in the ’60s. What do you think?” answered a white man who was later dismissed after saying he already made up his mind.
Earlier Monday, the judge denied a defense request to postpone the trial because prosecutors notified them only last week about a new expert witness they’ll use to refute defense claims that a third officer may have fired his weapon.
Attorney Jonathan Goins said he needs more time, but prosecutors said they only recently raised the allegation of a third shooter, even though they have had the ballistics evidence for roughly a year.
“Shame on you if you thought it was a potential and didn’t pursue it,” the judge told the defense.
The 14-minute video only captured the tail end of the chase and lacks audio for the first 27 seconds. The deputies began shooting before the audio begins.
Prosecutors say the bodycam video proves Jeremy’s unarmed father, Christopher Few, didn’t pose a threat to the officers as they fired on his car from a safe distance.
Defense attorneys argue that Stafford and Greenhouse acted in self-defense. They claim Few drove recklessly as he led deputies on a 2-mile chase and then rammed into Greenhouse’s vehicle as he exited it, before he and Stafford opened fire.
“My client wanted to go home and be with his family that night, just like any officer wants to go home and be with their family,” Goins said.
A State Police detective has testified there isn’t any physical evidence of Few’s car colliding with Greenhouse’s vehicle, but couldn’t rule that out.
After the gunfire stopped, more than seven minutes elapsed before Marksville Police Sgt. Kenneth Parnell III — the officer wearing the body camera — checked on the boy and found a faint pulse. After donning surgical gloves, Parnell walked back to the boy and turned a flashlight on him.
“Oh, my God,” he muttered.
Four minutes later, a paramedic told Parnell that the boy was dead.
Investigators traced 14 shell casings to Stafford’s gun and four other casings to Greenhouse’s gun. Three of the four bullet fragments recovered from Jeremy’s body matched Stafford’s weapon; another couldn’t be matched to either deputy.
Stafford, a Marksville police lieutenant, and Greenhouse, a former Marksville police officer, were moonlighting that night as deputy city marshals.
Before the shooting, both Stafford and Greenhouse had been sued, accused of excessive force or neglecting their duties. The Marksville Police Department suspended Stafford after his indictment on rape charges in 2011, but reinstated him after prosecutors dismissed the charges.
“It’s been emotional. It’s been divisive,” said District Attorney Charles Riddle, who recused himself from the case because one of his top assistant prosecutors is Greenhouse’s father. “Law enforcement has taken some hits, but we have tried to address the complaints.”