No Charges Against Cops for Killing Chan Lieth, Car Thief Accused of Taunting Them

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey has faced criticism for his regular decisions not to criminally charge police in officer-involved shootings.

The latest example: Morrissey has deemed the killing of car thief Chan Lieth this past December as justified even though the officers involved — Teresa Fields and Josh Stuteville — fired into a moving vehicle, a practice disavowed by the Denver Police Department after the controversial January 2015 death of another car thief, seventeen-year-old Jessie Hernandez, under similar circumstances.

Fields and Stuteville don't work under these regulations, since they are members of the Aurora Police Department, not the DPD — and even if they were Denver cops, violating the rules wouldn't automatically mean they'd committed a crime. But more and more police departments across the country have concluded that shooting into a moving vehicle can actually create a more dangerous situation on top of resulting in unnecessary and preventable death.

The DPD rule reads in part:
A. Firearms shall not be discharged at a moving or fleeing vehicle unless deadly force is being used against the police officer or another person present by means other than the moving vehicle.

B. Officers shall exercise good judgment and not move into or remain in the path of a moving vehicle. Moving into or remaining in the path of a moving vehicle, whether deliberate or inadvertent, shall not be justification for discharging a firearm at the vehicle or any occupant. An officer in the path of a vehicle shall attempt to move to a position of safety rather than discharging a firearm at the vehicle or any of the occupants.
Against this backdrop, here is the account of Lieth's death from Morrissey's decision letter, on view below in its entirety.

On December 14, 2015, according to the document, a silver Jeep Grand Cherokee was stolen in Denver — and beginning four days later, Aurora police officers saw it driving around their jurisdiction.

The cops didn't initiate chases, but, the letter notes, "it appeared to Aurora officers that the driver was 'taunting' the officers to engage them in a chase. They observed that when they tried to pull the Jeep over, the driver would speed up and drive to elude them, but would then slow down when the officers discontinued pursuit, and would then speed up again if the officers got closer."

Cut to 11:33 p.m. on December 21, when the Jeep was spotted pulling into a parking space outside a 7-Eleven located at 1103 Yosemite Street. 

Here's a surveillance photo contained in the report showing the Jeep's position:

About thirty seconds later, two Aurora police vehicles drove into the lot.

Officer Barry Gomez, behind the wheel of the first ride, drove directly behind the Jeep — but before he could come to a complete stop, Lieth shifted into reverse and hit the front of Gomez's car.

Here's a photo depicting that:

At that point, Gomez got out of the car, while Officer Fields, in a second police vehicle (an SUV), pulled to a stop on the driver's side of Gomez's car.

Lieth then drove the Jeep forward over two yellow cement parking blocks and onto the raised concrete walkway in front of the store, the report states.

A customer was standing on the walkway, and when he saw Lieth's maneuver, he quickly walked away, as depicted in this screen capture:

By the DA's office count, the Jeep stayed put for eight seconds — enough time to allow Gomez and Fields to approach it on foot with their guns drawn.

Meanwhile, Officer Stuteville arrived in a third police vehicle, stopping near Gomez's car.

As Stuteville got out of his car, Lieth closed the Jeep's window on the driver's side before shifting into reverse a second time. When his front tires came into contact with the parking blocks, he changed direction, moving forward until he hit a temporary sign.

Gomez and Fields can be seen behind and to the driver's side of the Jeep, with their guns pointed toward Lieth in this photo:

Next, Lieth backed up again, this time making it over the parking blocks, before driving forward over them again prior to stopping.

A fourth attempt at backing up toward a possible escape route was cut off by the arrival of another Aurora police car. Here's a look at that from a different surveillance camera.

These various movements meant that the black sedan seen amid all the police cars couldn't get away. It was occupied by an adult and a child.

From there, Lieth drove forward, ramming the corner of the Jeep into the 7-Eleven's doors, breaking them in the process.

Fields responded by moving south of the Jeep near a Redbox video-vending machine, while Gomez repositioned himself on the driver's side of the police car.

The following photo shows this taking place.

When Lieth reversed again, Fields backpedaled between the Redbox and a cage filled with propane tanks.

Meanwhile, Officer Stuteville was east of the Jeep, between the black sedan and Gomez's police car. He aimed his gun at Leith, as seen on the right side of the frame here.

As Lieth backed up again, Stuteville appears to have fired his weapon.

Shattered glass from the Jeep can be seen in the next two images:

Officer Stuteville stopped shooting at that point, but the Jeep kept backing up in Fields's direction.

That's when she started shooting.

The following photo captures this moment.

Only then did the vehicle finally stop...

...for reasons that are made clear by a police photo taken after the fact.

Turns out the Jeep couldn't go further because of poles put in place to protect the propane:

The presence of these poles suggests that Lieth couldn't have hit Fields even if that had been his goal.

Nonetheless, Morrissey believes Lieth was using the Jeep as a deadly weapon, which justified Fields's actions, as well as those of Stuteville.

His conclusion reads:
I conclude that a jury would not find the officers lacked justification for firing their weapons at Mr. Lieth. To the contrary, the evidence shows that both officers were legally justified to use deadly physical force. Officer Fields was justified in firing her weapon in order to defend herself as well as to defend others who may have been put in harm’s way from Mr. Lieth’s dangerous actions with the stolen vehicle. Likewise, Officer Stuteville was justifiably firing in order to defend others at the 7-11, including Officer Fields.

It is clear from the 7-11 videos that Mr. Lieth was using the stolen vehicle as a deadly weapon. He was driving the Jeep back and forth violently and intentionally, without regard for what or who was in the way. The people inside and outside the 7-11 were frightened by his use of the vehicle and tried to get out of his way. Based on what the officers observed, it was reasonable for them to fear for the safety of the others at the 7-11, both inside and outside. It was reasonable for Officer Stuteville to believe that firing his weapon at Mr. Lieth was necessary in order to stop him from hurting or killing someone. When Mr. Lieth drove in reverse the final time, turning and accelerating rearward toward Officer Fields, it was reasonable for her to feel that the vehicle was being used as a deadly weapon against her and that deadly physical force was being directed at her. It was reasonable for her to believe that she was in imminent danger of receiving great bodily injury or death. Under these circumstances, she was justified in shooting Mr. Lieth.

Accordingly, criminal charges will not be filed as a result of this shooting.
Continue to read the complete decision letter.

Chan Lieth Shooting Decision Letter

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts