Back in January, seventeen-year-old Jessie Hernandez was killed by police while she was behind the wheel of a stolen car.
The incident spawned protests against alleged excessive force, a petition calling for a federal investigation and scrutiny from Denver's Independent Monitor, who raised questions about Denver police policy in regard to shooting into moving vehicles.
Months later, the Denver District Attorney's Office has released its decision letter in regard to the case, making it public on a Friday afternoon — the time when controversial news is traditionally issued, since news consumption tends to fall off precipitously as the weekend nears.
The idea: Maybe if we put it out then, most people won't notice....
No surprise that Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey concluded that criminal charges aren't justified by the actions of officers Gabriel Jordan and Daniel Greene, the pair who opened fire on Hernandez's vehicle. The car also contained four other passengers, ages fifteen through seventeen.
Why doesn't this outcome seem more unexpected? Because Morrissey has never filed criminal charges against an officer over a line-of-duty shooting as Denver's DA — and his office hasn't done so since 1992, well over two decades ago.
Morrissey critics believe that he's hopelessly biased on behalf of police officers in such scenarios. But the officer-involved-shooting decision letter issued in the case, on view below, is extremely thorough, and both Morrissey and the Denver Police Department encourage members of the public to read it closely before leaping to conclusions.
Members of Hernandez's family have, as have representatives of Colorado's ACLU — and both feel very differently than does Morrissey.
Here's a closer look at the details, and the reactions, illustrated by photos from the shooting decision letter, many featuring original captions or descriptions.
The shooting letter, addressed to Denver Police Chief Robert White, notes that on Sunday, January 25, Jose Carmen Guzman-Bonilla reported that his Honda Civic had been stolen.
That night, Hernandez and four friends, identified only by where they sat in the car (for instance, "FSP" for "front-seat passenger"), drove around to several locations in the Honda — and the lack of consistency in terms of the survivors' memory of where they went is used to attack their credibility as witnesses.
As an example, one of the teens said Hernandez started the car using a screwdriver rather than a key, after which the group "went and picked up weed from Thornton" and visited a McDonald's where they narrowly escaped notice from a cop — details none of the other occupants mentioned, according to the report.
Around 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. on the 26th, Hernandez parked the car in an alley behind a residence at 2511 Newport Street and everyone inside fell asleep.
Around 6:30 a.m., a neighbor called police. Initial reports suggested that he'd done so because the people in the car had been playing music loudly, but there's no mention of that in the letter. The document says the man merely reported a "suspicious vehicle" with its windows fogged up.
Officers Jordan and Greene arrived just shy of 7 a.m., parked in the alley and determined that the car had been stolen. Shortly thereafter, one of the teens spotted the police cars and awakened the others. "They're started to get hinked up and moving around a lot," Officer Jordan radioed to supervisors.
Two minutes later, shots were fired.
Jordan's account of what happened states that he turned on the emergency lights of his vehicle, drove closer to the front of the Honda, which was facing him, and yelled, "Police! Get out of the vehicle! Police! Get out of the vehicle!"
At that point, Jordan says he saw a door on the driver's side of the Honda open and "what looked like a Hispanic male looked back and then ducked his head back in and shut the door."
Next, Jordan told investigators, the Honda backed up slowly toward Green's police car and either made contact with its bumper or stopped just before touching it.
The Honda then "changed direction and moved slowly northbound" in Jordan's direction, prompting him to repeatedly shout, "Stop! Stop the car! Police!"
Instead, Jordan maintains, the Honda reversed again in the direction of a wooden fence, which it hit along with a trash container.
Jordan says he reacted by moving around his vehicle toward the Honda, running along its side, at which point "the car engine revs up and it comes directly at me...driving right at me at a high rate of speed."
Jordan said the car came within "inches" of him, prompting him to open fire with the gun in his right hand as he pushed away on the fender of the car with his left hand. A quote:
"I waited till I had to hit the car away and I'm thinking now I'm going to go — I'm going to get squished and — and killed, and right then is when I fired. And...I'd be surprised if my gun wasn't touching the driver's side — the window."
Greene's separate statement agrees with Jordan's in every significant details, as does that of a neighbor, Crystal Engler. An excerpt from her statement reads:
Instead, the car ended up like kind of accelerating, and like — like moving toward the police, like right toward the police and — and I did see an officer get hit, and it was kind of like he bounced off of it — you know what I mean? It was like — like, 'Oh my goodness!'"
The witnesses inside the car had different recollections of events. The FSP said "she never saw an officer get hit by the Honda and she did not see an officer in the path of the car," the report states.
The other passengers agree with this basic contention, but the report stresses variations in their statements and the fact that the windows were foggy, perhaps obstructing their views.
From there, the report delves into aspects of the crime-scene investigation, complete with details about the eight bullet holes that punctured the Honda and their trajectories, as well as Hernandez's autopsy results. She had two gunshot wounds to her torso and one to her pelvis and right thigh — "four wound paths that were caused by three bullets," the letter allows.
The analysis determines that "of the eyewitness accounts, the physical evidence only supports the accounts given by the two officers and by Ms. Engler.
"The physical evidence is compelling evidence that Officer Jordan was where he described being when he fired his shots," the account continues. "The fact that the teenage witnesses did not see Officer Jordan there during the undoubtedly frantic and traumatic moments of the shooting is understandable under the circumstances. The teenagers had been consuming marijuana and alcohol, had just awakened from their sleep in a car, and their vision was obscured by the foggy windows."
Based on this information, Morrissey reached the following determination:
In conclusion, after reviewing all of the evidence in this investigation, my judgment is that if a jury were presented with the totality of the evidence, the jury would find from the facts, as I do, that:
• The officers were lawfully attempting to arrest the driver of a stolen car;
• The officers reasonably believed that the sudden acceleration of the Honda toward Officer Jordan was the use or imminent use of deadly physical force by the driver;
• The officers reasonably believed that responding with deadly physical force was necessary in order to defend Officer Jordan.
These findings would result in a finding that the officers’ use of deadly force was justified under C.R.S. 18-1-707, and therefore was not unlawful.
Similarly, regarding the justification set forth in C.R.S. 18-1-704, I conclude that a jury would find, as I do, that:
• The officers reasonably believed that the acceleration of the Honda toward Officer Jordan was an unlawful use or imminent use of force by the driver;
• The officers had reasonable grounds to believe, and did believe, that Officer Jordan was in imminent danger of being killed or of receiving great bodily injury;
• The officers reasonably believed less than deadly physical force was inadequate to defend Officer Jordan under the circumstances.
These findings would result in a jury finding that the officers’ use of deadly force was justified under C.R.S. 18-1-704, and therefore was not unlawful.
His final words: "If there is one message I hope our community understands from this case, it is that this shooting was completely preventable. It would not have occurred if Hernandez had simply complied with lawful police orders."
Shortly after the release of the letter, the Denver Police Department issued a statement noting that an internal review of the incident is underway:
The Denver Police Department (DPD) is aware of the outcome of the Denver District Attorney’s investigation into the incident where 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez was shot by Denver Police officers. We ask the community to review the shoot letter for a full understanding into the events, which occurred on January 26, 2015.
Now that DPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) has received the DA’s decision letter, it will proceed with the administrative review of the case. Once the administrative review is final, the releasable documents will be made available to the public. Additionally, Denver Police continue to review the policy and training of potential lethal force encounters involving persons in motor vehicles. This policy and training review, which has been ongoing, is expected to be completed within two weeks.
If these words were meant to reassure Hernandez's family, they didn't succeed. We've included the members' complete statement below, but here's an excerpt:
District Attorney Morrissey is correct that Jessie’s death was preventable. She would not have died if Denver’s policies and training required its officers to act within the bounds of the United States Constitution and national best practices. Jessie and her friends were placed in danger by Denver Police officers’ decision to employ unnecessary deadly force as a matter of first resort. Denver refuses to take responsibility for its officers’ excessive and unreasonable conduct, and instead has once again blamed Jessie for her own death.
The ACLU of Colorado struck a similar tone with its statement:
“In what has become a disturbingly predictable pattern, Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey has once again refused to bring charges against Denver law enforcement officers following a police-involved killing, in this case the January 26th shooting of 17-year-old Jessie Hernandez.
“Beyond the obvious questions about conflict of interest, it is impossible to trust the objectivity of Mr. Morrissey, given that he has not filed a single indictment following an officer-involved shooting during his tenure as District Attorney.
“In 2011, the ACLU of Colorado called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Denver Police Department’s ‘pattern and practice’ of using excessive force and violating the civil rights of Denver residents. We once again renew that call today.
“A full independent review is necessary, now more than ever, as the community has lost its faith in Denver’s ability to hold police accountable in use-of-force cases.”
Look below to see more photos from the document , a 7News report about the decision, the complete shooting letter and the statement from Hernandez's family.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.