GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The officer who shot and killed Patrick Lyoya during a traffic stop in Grand Rapids nine weeks ago will be charged with second-degree murder and the police department has started the process to fire him.
Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said his office on Thursday filed the charge — the most serious one possible in this case — against Officer Christopher Schurr.
Becker said Schurr turned himself in. Online records showed he was in the Calhoun County jail in Battle Creek, which the Calhoun County sheriff noted was a “common practice” in cases where a defendant works for the jurisdiction in which he was arrested. Arraignment was scheduled for Friday, though Becker didn’t know exactly what time.
Grand Rapids Police Department Chief Eric Winstrom said he was recommending that Schurr be immediately suspended without pay pending termination.
Becker made his decision public in an about 15-minute news conference Thursday afternoon at Michigan State Police Sixth District Headquarters in Walker. He said he told the GRPD chief about it Wednesday.
Becker spoke with the Lyoya family over the phone just minutes before his news conference. The prosecutor said he also sent them a letter, written in their native Swahili, about his decision.
“They said, ‘Thank you.’ It was a very brief phone call,” he said.
He thanked the Lyoya family for “their tremendous patience and understanding as this process has developed.” He spoke of the “emotions they must be going through. I deeply appreciate what they’ve done… their calls for peace and calm.”
A first-degree murder charge would have required premeditation, which Becker said didn’t apply in this case. The elements of second-degree murder require that there was a death, that the death was intentional and that it could not be justified by self-defense. If convicted, Schurr, 31, of Grandville, faces up to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
“I wouldn’t charge if I didn’t think I could prove it,” Becker said.
Becker said his office eyed a lesser manslaughter charge, which a jury could consider. He said manslaughter would have called for a “heat of passion” element that he didn’t see in the case. Manslaughter would be punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The prosecutor said he did not file a separate felony firearms charge, as is common, because a 1991 court ruling doesn’t allow it against officers using a gun in the line of duty.
Becker said he will handle the prosecution himself.
‘JUSTICE IS STARTING TO WORK’
“Maybe Patrick will get the justice,” Lyoya’s father Peter Lyoya said, speaking to reporters in Detroit after Becker released his decision.
He thanked the prosecutor and those who have supported his family.
“My heart was really broken in these last two months because a lot of things were said. I wasn’t quite sure of the truth in my head, and I was thinking there was maybe no justice in America,” Peter Lyoya said through a translator. “Patrick is not coming back. We are not going to see him again. And to show at this point that the police officer will be charged, that brings a little bit of consolation to our family…”
He said he was not expecting the charge and had not dared hope for it.
“When he gave me that, he told me that, I felt like strength and relief a little bit,” Peter Lyoya said. “When I was coming here, my heart was still broken because I was not expecting good news at all.”
“I hope (Becker) and anybody would understand the past two months has felt like an eternity to the Lyoya family,” the Lyoya family’s attorney Ven Johnson said. “We don’t mean any disrespect about how long it took, but when your son is shot in the back of the head by a police officer in the line of duty… to the family, it felt like forever.”
“It’s not a celebration. It’s not happiness. It just feels like justice is starting to work,” Johnson said, sitting next to Peter Lyoya.
“What we do think today shows is something that Ben Crump and I, on behalf of the family, have not just been saying but have been publicly showing you and proving to you the evidence, that there is no excuse whatsoever for Patrick being shot in the back of the head,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, many people in our society believe, contrary to Michigan and U.S. law, that if you resist arrest, the officer can do anything he wants to you up to and including kill you. That is false.”
He also acknowledged the charge is not a guarantee of a conviction and said he was certain Schurr’s defense team would argue self-defense. Johnson said there was a “long road ahead” before there was justice.
But, Johnson noted, the charges reflect the case of the Minneapolis officer who killed George Floyd. That officer, Derek Chauvin, was convicted.
“We’re certainly hoping that justice does prevail and that this Kent County jury will do the right thing,” Johnson said.
Appearing at the news conference via video call, famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is also representing the Lyoya family, called the charges “more than appropriate.”
He said the charge shows that what Schurr did “is wrong. It is wrong.”
“The whole world will be watching West Michigan to see if Patrick Lyoya can get equal justice in the United States of America and in the courtrooms of Grand Rapids, Michigan,” Crump told News 8.
Lyoya, 26, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who came to the U.S. several years ago, died April 4. Video released by GRPD shows that Schurr pulled Lyoya over, Lyoya ran away and there was a struggle that included Lyoya grabbing Schurr’s Taser. Schurr, who was on top of Lyoya trying to hold him down, shot Lyoya in the back of the head.
Defense lawyers told The Associated Press the shooting was not “murder but an unfortunate tragedy.”
The shooting was not “murder but an unfortunate tragedy,” Schurr’s attorneys told The Associated Press.
“Mr. Lyoya gained full control of a police officer’s weapon while resisting arrest, placing Officer Schurr in fear of great bodily harm or death,” defense lawyers Matt Borgula and Mark Dodge said in a written statement to the Associated Press.
The shooting was caught on home surveillance camera and recorded by a bystander on a cellphone. Part of the scuffle between Schurr and Lyoya was recorded by Schurr’s body camera, but that camera turned off midway through the altercation.
Johnson questioned why. He was skeptical that the three seconds of pressure necessary to turn the camera off could have been unintentional.
“This was not an accidental turn-off,” Johnson said.
Kent County Commissioner Robert S. Womack, who has been working with the Lyoya family, questioned why the shooting was captured by a Ring camera and buy a bystander’s cellphone but not by police video equipment.
Johnson also said the family would be formally asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether Lyoya’s civil rights were violated.
EXPERT: SECOND-DEGREE MURDER CHARGE ‘BIG’
“This is significant on a number of different levels,” Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Professor Mark Dotson said of the charge. “This is big. This is big.”
He said he was surprised that Becker charged for second-degree murder. He said the current and former police chiefs he polled before the decision was announced had expected involuntary manslaughter. Dotson could not think of a similar charge against a police officer in Michigan.
“With the significance of the charge comes a heavy burden on the prosecutor,” Dotson said. “There’s a great difference between … a second-degree (murder) charge and anything that might be considered lesser, like voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. He’s taken on a big bite here and he sounds like he’s prepared to have to deal with it.”
He agreed with Lyoya family attorney Ven Johnson that the self-defense argument is going to loom large during the trial. He said if a juror is predisposed to agree with the officer, that could be a tough nut to crack.
“The jury’s always been a wild card, they’ve always been a crap shoot,” he said. “When it comes to the jury … you never know how they’re going to respond to the circumstance and to the evidence that’s going to be presented before them. And that’s where jury selection will be most important.”
Jury selection could take a while, Dotson said.
And the stakes are high.
“This is not a situation where you want to bring a charge, historically, and then not be able to prove it,” Dotson said. “Because that sends a message, also, to people that are evaluating the prosecutor as well as people that might be pro one way or the other when it comes to these police shootings. He needs to get a conviction. And I’m sure he’s confident enough in getting a conviction, otherwise he would not have brought these charges.”
He said he agrees the conditions of the crime are there.
“I think there is sufficient evidence to support the second-degree charge and I think he should be able to carry that burden if it eventually goes to trial,” Dotson said.
Michigan State Police investigated the shooting, which is standard protocol. Becker got the bulk of MSP’s investigation weeks ago but had to wait several more weeks to get additional forensic reports from the manufacturer of the officer’s body camera and Taser. He finally had all of it eight days ago.
On May 18, the prosecutor said he was seeking additional “expert guidance” on the case but didn’t explain exactly what guidance he needed. During his news conference, Becker said he had consulted use of force experts.
He said that now that he has filed charges, he wasn’t able to provide many details. He would not say whether Schurr sat for an interview with MSP.
“I can’t get into the facts, the circumstances,” he said. “This case needs to be tried in a court of law, and not in the public.”
Becker said the charges were not meant as a message to police.
“I’m never big on sending messages with charges,” he said. “I’m not thinking that Kent County officers or any police officers in general thought they had a license to do something like this.”
GRPD Chief Winstrom, too, did not see the decision as a specific message to his department.
“I think it’s a fact of the world: police officers aren’t above the law,” he said.
Becker said he hopes this decision helps clarify to the community the role of the prosecutor’s office.
“Everybody thinks the prosecutor is just an arm or just a branch of police. We’re not,” Becker said. “We are our own entity. We have a duty to enforce the law, be it on police or the public. Very often, we disagree on cases, we disagree on things that happen. We are a separate entity and our duty is public safety. We work a lot with them but we don’t work for them, and I think law enforcement in Kent County understands that. We understand that.”
He recognized that the case is important to the community.
“I think (public opinion is) split, to be honest with you. The general consensus is there’s a huge amount of community pressure that thinks I should charge, and if I don’t charge something is going to happen. But literally, before I came over here, I got an email from somebody saying, ‘I don’t think you should charge.’ There’s a lot of people that think this should not be charged,” Becker said. “So I’m very mindful of that. I hope the public reflects the care and concern I took. This is not a quick or a decision I took lightly.”
CHIEF: FIRING SCHURR ‘RIGHT THING TO DO’
Chief Winstrom had intentionally waited for the outcome of the state police investigation before deciding what to do about Schurr’s employment. He announced in a news conference with other city leaders late Thursday afternoon that he was taking the initial steps to fire him.
“I recognize the impact this will have on a longtime employee and a friend to many at the Grand Rapids Police Department, but I think it is the right thing to do,” Winstrom said.
Under the officer’s contract, the termination process starts with a recommendation from the chief to the city manager. Schurr is then due formal notice and a hearing “as soon as possible,” City Manager Mark Washington said. After that hearing, a final decision on Schurr’s employment will be made. Washington said that could happen as soon as early next week.
As that process moves forward, Schurr will be suspended without pay. He had been on paid administrative leave since the shooting, which is standard procedure after any officer uses deadly force.
Winstrom praised the rest of his officers for their professionalism as they waited for the prosecutor’s decision.
“Over the last two months, the men and women of the Grand Rapids Police Department have been giving 100% and are doing an incredible job for the city,” Winstrom said, noting the city has seen a rash of eight homicides since early May. “This is going to be a difficult time for the police department. We’ll get through it.”
Winstrom said he respects Becker’s decision, has no reason to believe it was wrong and that he’s “not surprised by much, no.”
Winstrom said he and Brandon Davis, the director of the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability, would both be reviewing the case.
“If there are other aspects of the case, other than the use of force incident, that we can improve on, we certainly will,” the chief said.
The chief said GRPD’s internal affairs investigation has started. The department interviewed Schurr in the days after the shooting, though Winstrom said he can’t discuss what Schurr said.
City leaders said that though the charging decision had been made, their work on police reform was far from over.
“(The city commission and I) recognize that this work is more important and it is more urgent than ever,” Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said. “I, along with my colleagues, remain committed to working with our city manager, our police chief, our director of public oversight and accountability, our community partners … and our residents as we strive to make long-term systemic changes that crate a safer and a better community for everyone. That is our commitment today and that is the commitment we will continue to have.”
Washington promised the city would keep looking at use of bodycams, traffic stop analysis, the deployment of officers, how officers interact with residents, the role of the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability and Civilian Appeals Board, and the implementation antiviolence programs.
“We will also continue to focus on and work on deescalation and ensuring that officers continue to be properly trained,” Washington said adding that he was working to add “community-informed and community-engaged training in which they are part of the design and will participate in future training.”
Bliss also called for reforms at the state and federal level.
The union for GRPD command officers declined to comment Thursday. The union for rank-and-file officers did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
—News 8 assistant news director Amy Fox, Target 8 investigator Susan Samples and News 8 reporter Joe LaFurgey contributed to this report.