GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A former Grand Rapids police officer has been ordered to stand trial for murder in the death of Patrick Lyoya after a judge said there are questions that must be decided by a jury.
Chris Schurr, 31, of Grandville, is charged with second-degree murder for the April 4 killing of Lyoya, 26.
What is in question in court is whether it constituted murder. Schurr’s defense team is arguing he acted in self-defense when he shot and killed Lyoya following a traffic stop and struggle over Schurr’s Taser and that he was justified in shooting Lyoya under the “fleeing felon” common law — saying Lyoya became a felon when he attempted to run away. In charging Schurr with second-degree murder, the prosecutor said the shooting could not be justified by self-defense.
Judge Nicholas Ayoub said that ultimately, a jury must decide.
“…Factual questions remain as to whether defendant reasonably believed that his life was in imminent danger (or that he was in imminent danger of suffering great bodily harm) and that deadly force was reasonably necessary. These are questions of fact that the jury must decide based on the totality of the circumstances as presented by the evidence at trial,” Ayoub’s decision reads in part.
In two days of a preliminary hearing last week, the court heard from Taser experts, Grand Rapids Police Department officers, people who live near where the shooting happened and the passenger who was in Lyoya’s car before he was killed. After the defense and prosecution laid out their arguments, Ayoub said he needed to review all evidence and applicable laws before he decided if the case would be bound over to trial. He announced his decision Monday morning.
“While defendant has made strong arguments that the circumstances establish reasonableness and necessity, this Court cannot make that determination here at the preliminary examination as a matter of law,” the decision continues. “The evidentiary record from the preliminary examination contains enough to allow a person of average intelligence to conclude that defendant’s fear was not reasonable or that the defendant’s shooting of Lyoya in the back of the head was not reasonably necessary.”
Ayoub stressed that he was not expressing an opinion on whether Schurr was guilty or innocent.
“…Law enforcement officers are required to make split-second decisions of life and death which cannot be judged through 20/20 vision of hindsight from the vantage point of the judge’s bench,” Ayoub wrote. “It is precisely for this reason that defendant must be bound over for trial to allow a jury to make that factual determination taking into account all of the evidence produced at a full and fair trial.”
Sarissa Montague, a criminal defense attorney for Levine & Levine in Kalamazoo, explained that the judge needed to find whether there is probable cause that a crime was committed and that Schurr committed that crime.
“When you’re only dealing with a probable cause standard, in most cases, probable cause standard is very low,” Montague said. “It’s very different from proof beyond a reasonable doubt. So most cases do get bound over to circuit court after a preliminary examination was held.”
“I can’t stress enough the difference between a probable cause standard and a proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard,” Montague added. “Those are two very, very different things.”
Montague called the judge’s decision “completely correct.”
“(These) are questions for the jury … that is a decision to be made by a jury of the defendant’s peers,” Montague said.
Outside the courtroom, Lyoya’s family said they were still mourning him but were grateful for Ayoub’s decision.
“Ayoub showed that … he has the heart of a parent and (Kent County Prosecutor Chris) Becker showed that … he has the heart of a parent,” Lyoya’s father Peter Lyoya said in his native Swahili with help from a translator. “…My heart is receiving a little bit of relief because I’m seeing people around me who are helping to get me the justice.”
Peter Lyoya said he and his family struggled during the preliminary hearing as the video showing Patrick Lyoya being killed was played and the defense brought forth evidence about Patrick Lyoya having Bridge cards, IDs and credit cards in his car that didn’t belong to him.
“When I came here on Thursday and Friday, I felt like my heart, me and my family, our hearts were broken,” Peter Lyoya said. “…I was surprised, astonished, to see how they are accusing, they try to portray my son like a real criminal. That really hurt my heart. My heart was still bleeding, my wife’s heart was bleeding, to see that son, I’ve already lost him, I buried him, and yet they are still crushing his image, his reputation, his name just to acquit the officer.”
Becker said he was “pleased” by Ayoub’s decision to move the case forward.
“It’s a low bar. Obviously, it’s one thing we’ve got to get over…” Becker said. “I thought the law is on our side. I think he (the judge) followed the law.”
“It’s a low burden,” defense attorney Matthew Borgula agreed, speaking to reporters later, “meaning is there enough to charge someone with a crime? And here the judge thought so and we’re not surprised. But at the same time, I think the judge indicated, at least in part, that there are some significant questions here that will make it very difficult for the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Schurr committed a crime and we feel strongly that he will be acquitted during a jury trial.”
Asked if he thought he had the evidence to clear the higher bar of proving his case at trial, Becker said he did.
“I wouldn’t be proceeding in this case if I didn’t think there was something we could do with that,” Becker, who is trying the case himself, said.
The Greater Grand Rapids NAACP is also pleased with the decision. President Cle Jackson asked next for a fair trial, no delays and that Becker and his team do all they can to ensure a conviction.
“It’s time to move forward. It’s time to move forward with intentional speed. Not only will the community be able to heal and again start to repair but that his family can heal and repair because they haven’t been able to do that,” Jackson said. “I will just encourage Christopher Becker to be very intentional and use the full resources he has at his disposal to make sure there is a conviction here.”
Kent County Commissioner Robert S. Womack has been by the Lyoya family’s side since the shooting and he was in the courtroom when Ayoub read his analysis. He said this case is bigger than one police officer and the entire police department should be held accountable.
“This is about the training,” Womack said. “The GRPD officer just said that this (Schurr’s actions) was perfect. We are the taxpayers in the community and we want better policing, community relations, but it starts with looking at incidents right here.”
Borgula said he expects to appeal Ayoub’s ruling to Kent County Circuit Court. He and Becker said not to expect a trial until sometime next year.
Montague expects it will be “several, several months” before the trial begins.
“There’s evidence issues that need to be addressed,” Montague said. “There’s witness issues that need to be addressed. There’s probably a number of motions that will be filed before the court to make pre-trial determinations about the type of evidence that is able to be presented at trial.”
Montague also expects debates over what instructions will be read to the jury, like what they should keep in mind when approaching the issue of self-defense.
“There are standard self-defense instructions, but that doesn’t mean that every defendant is entitled to a self-defense instruction,” Montague said. “In order for a jury to be instructed on the issue of self-defense, information needs to be provided at trial. And that’s when the jury, only if that initial information is provided at trial, then the jury will get instructed on the issue of self-defense.”
And of course, there’s jury selection: finding 12 fair and impartial people who will decide the fate of the former officer.
“We think in advance that it will be difficult,” Montague said. “But I will tell you, I’ve had my own experiences with a trial involving a police officer where we were the defense, and we thought it was going to be very difficult to seat a jury, and in fact it was very easy. What you expect and what actually happens at the time of trial are two different things.”
—News 8’s Phil Pinarski contributed to this report.