A West Valley City police officer who shot and killed a man hiding in a garage will not face criminal charges, the Salt Lake County district attorney announced Friday.
Officer Nicholaus Green fired three shots at Elijah James Smith on April 8, one of the bullets striking the 20-year-old in the neck.
Smith had come to the West Valley City house while running from police, who were searching the area for someone suspected of stealing from a cellphone store on Redwood Road.
Body camera footage, shown Friday at the district attorney’s office, show three officers enter the home and encounter Smith in the garage. They yelled at him to put his hands up multiple times, the video shows, before Smith put up his left hand.
District Attorney Sim Gill said the officers’ body cameras show Smith moved his right hand from his front pocket to a hoodie pocket before he pulled out a seven-inch screwdriver with the tip wrapped in electrical tape. One officer responded by using a stun gun and Green fired his weapon three times.
Gill said Green declined to be interviewed by investigators, exercising his constitutional right to remain silent.
“It remains unclear what he was thinking or feeling, or even what he saw, when he discharged his service weapon,” Gill said at a Friday news conference.
This means Gill’s office couldn’t determine with certainty whether Green intentionally fired his weapon, if it was accidentally discharged or if it was “sympathetic gunfire” — meaning Green fired his weapon in reaction to his fellow officer deploying a taser.
“Without a statement from Officer Green, it is impossible to know for sure,” Gill wrote in a letter addressed to West Valley City Police Chief Colleen Jacobs and Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera.
Gill did not outright call the shooting a justified use of force — something he has done in past reviews — but he did not say it was unjustified either. He ultimately concluded that Green “could likely establish” at a trial that he used deadly force to prevent death or serious injury to another person.
Steven Killpack, an attorney who is representing Smith’s family, said Friday that his clients appreciated Gill walking them through the case Friday morning and explaining his decision.
“Of course, the family is extremely saddened by the loss of their son, and feel that better police protocols may have prevented the incident,” Killpack said Friday. “But in terms of the decision today, the decision involved whether a police officer was prosecuted. It did not involve liability, and what’s right and wrong morally.”
Killpack said Smith’s family was frustrated that the officer who shot their loved one has not given any public statement or interview about the shooting, to explain what was going through his mind.
This is the second ruling from Gill on a police shooting in recent weeks where the officer refused to be interviewed by investigators. The district attorney said this is becoming a growing trend nationwide, but added his office can’t force a law enforcement officer to testify or explain himself while reviewing the case to determine whether he will face criminal charges.
The other two officers, Phillip Wright and George Martinez, did speak to investigators.
Martinez, who was closest to Smith before the shooting, said he fired his taser after seeing Smith had “a weird pulling motion like his hand would not come out of his pocket,” according to Gill’s letter.
Wright, who was standing near Green at an elevated doorway above the garage, said he would have fired his gun if Green hadn’t.
He told investigators he “knew that Martinez was going to get shot or stabbed or something with whatever the suspect was trying to get out of his pocket.”
Three children — ages 9, 10 and 13 — were inside the house at the time of the shooting.
The 13-year-old later told police that he was playing video games that afternoon when he heard someone knock on the front door. He opened it a bit, and a stranger “pushed” the door, came in and asked for water. The child asked Smith to leave, he told police, but the man did not and kept asking for water.
The middle child later told investigators that Smith “said he needed help because someone was blaming him for something he wasn’t doing.”
Smith matched the description of the cellphone store thief — a black male, wearing a gray hoodie and black pants — police have said.
As police were investigating the theft that day, an officer saw Smith hop over a fence into the backyard of a house in a cul-de-sac. The homeowner reportedly told Smith to leave, and he did. A police officer then saw Smith go into another house. When the three officers arrived, the 13-year-old boy answered the door.
“There’s some, some guy here,” the 13-year-old is heard telling police, according to the body cam footage.
Smith died in the garage.
Killpack on Friday declined to say whether Smith’s family would file a civil lawsuit, but said they have “evaluated all the potential remedies in the situation.”