WASHINGTON - The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia has decided to not to file charges against an officer in the case of Terrence Sterling, an unarmed-African American man who was fatally shot by D.C. police back in September.
The decision comes nearly 10 months after the 31-year-old was shot in the neck and side by Officer Brian Trainer in the early morning hours of Sept. 11.
Federal officials said a comprehensive review of the incident that included witness accounts, photos, cellphone video, physical evidence, recorded radio communications, Department of Transportation video, Closed Circuit Television video, body-camera footage and Sterling's autopsy report found "there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer violated Mr. Sterling's civil rights by willfully using more force than was reasonably necessary, had the necessary criminal intent when he shot Mr. Sterling, or was not acting in self-defense."
"They don't believe they can get a conviction despite the fact that Brian Trainer shot an unarmed man in the back, a man that had no weapons whatsoever. They don't believe they can get a conviction," Jason Downs, the attorney representing the Sterling family, said outside the courthouse Wednesday afternoon.
Authorities said Sterling, an HVAC technician from Fort Washington, Maryland, was riding his motorcycle recklessly in Northwest D.C. when officers spotted him at about 4:20 a.m.
Sterling was on his way home from a bachelor party and was likely headed for the 3rd Street Tunnel when witnesses say a D.C. police cruiser suddenly blocked his path at the intersection of 3rd and M Streets and he collided with the vehicle.
At least one witness said the collision with the police cruiser appeared to be unavoidable and Sterling had his hands visible on the bike.
According to police, Trainer, a 4-year veteran of the force, fired at Sterling after his motorcycle struck the police cruiser. Police said no weapons were found on Sterling, who officials said was later to be determined to have a blood alcohol content of .16 and to also have THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in his system. Prosecutors also claim Sterling ran several red lights and was riding his motorcycle at times of an estimated speed of 100 miles per hour or more.
"There's certainly no good reason for the government to decline to prosecute under these circumstances. This is yet another example of our government disappointing us and letting down our community," Downs said. "We have to acknowledge that this is another young man who was unarmed and was killed by a police officer."
"This is why people believe there are two justice systems. There's one for the police officers and one for the rest of us. And police officers yet again have not been held accountable for their actions," Downs continued.
City officials said Trainer was wearing a body camera but failed to turn it on until after the shooting, which is a violation of protocol. The body camera footage that was recorded would later be released by Mayor Muriel Bowser 16 days after the shooting.
"Even more troubling is that there is a public document available to everyone that says there is a camera, a Homeland Security camera at 3rd and M streets. That camera should have captured this entire incident. We have been asking for that footage since the very beginning of this case, since Terrence was killed on Sept. 11, and we still have not been given access to that camera. We haven't even been given an explanation as to what that camera depicts. That is deeply troubling to the Sterling family and I imagine it's troubling to the public," Downs said.
It was later learned that there was a brief police pursuit that then-Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham failed to mention on the day of the shooting.
Newsham said that day:
"At approximately 4:20 a.m., there was a report of a motorcycle that was being driven erratically. Officers found the vehicle over here in the intersection of 3rd and M Street, Northwest, which is about a block north of New York Avenue. They were able to stop the vehicle. The person who was riding the motorcycle attempted to flee and ended up striking the police car, and at that point, shots were fired."
It is against the policy or general orders of the D.C. Police Department to chase any vehicle for a traffic offense. Even if Sterling were riding his motorcycle in a "reckless" manner as the department said in its initial press release, the officers would have had to get permission from a supervisor in order to give chase.
Nearly six months after the shooting, the D.C. government admitted the officers ignored the department's vehicle pursuit policy in its reply to a $50 million civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Sterling's family.
Attorneys representing the city wrote, "Admitted. Further answering, the officers were pursuing Mr. Terrence Sterling who was fleeing at the time."
The civil lawsuit, which was filed against Trainer, the Metropolitan Police Department and the District of Columbia, alleged, "Defendant unknown officer drove into the intersection shortly before Mr. Sterling to block a portion of the intersection with the police car he was driving to prevent Mr. Sterling from traversing that intersection."
A source familiar with the punishment tells FOX 5's Paul Wagner that the officer operating the police cruiser during the Sterling incident is Jordon Palmer. He was put on administrative leave along with Trainer and later given a 20-day suspension, which has already been served.
Mayor Muriel Bowser released a statement on Wednesday, which said in part that the police department had asked for Trainer's resignation:
"The relationship between our officers and the communities they serve is built on trust. That trust exists when we hold everyone accountable. Without accountability in this case, we break trust with our community-rendering the District and MPD less safe and less strong. I do not believe there can be real accountability if the officer remains on the force. As the department commences its disciplinary review, MPD has asked for the officer's resignation.
"Nothing we do will bring back a young life lost last September. What we can do is commit ourselves to ensuring justice and providing accountability. On behalf of all residents of the District of Columbia, I want to once again extend our condolences to Mr. Sterling's family."