A grand jury indicted a white former Atlanta police officer Wednesday on murder and other charges in the shooting of an unarmed black man.
After almost eight hours of testimony, the Fulton County grand jury indicted James Burns, who worked nearly three years for the Atlanta Police Department, in the June killing of Deravis Caine Rogers, 22.
"It's one of the quickest indictments I've ever heard of for a police officer," said Shean Williams, an attorney for Melva Rogers, the victim's mother. After getting the case at 9 a.m. and spending most of the day listening to testimony, the grand jury deliberated for five minutes, he said.
The charges included murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, making a false statement and two counts of violating his oath of office.
Williams described the indictment as a testament to the strength of the video and eyewitness evidence against Burns, as well as the aggressiveness of Fulton County District Attorney Dist. Atty. Paul Howard in presenting the case.
"I feel it's a very important day in civil rights cases — not only for my client but for every victim of police brutality and excessive use of force," Williams said. "I want this to be encouragement to people in other cities and states to come together to hold their leaders accountable to make sure they get justice."
Burns' attorney, Drew Findling, said he was confident that a jury would ultimately find Burns not guilty. "An indictment is a one-sided process," he said, noting the defense did not have an opportunity to present witnesses and experts or cross-examine prosecution witnesses.
The shooting occurred just before midnight June 22, when Burns was called to an apartment complex in midtown Atlanta to assist an off-duty officer who was trying to apprehend a suspicious person.
As Burns drove into the complex, he observed a silver sedan approaching his patrol car. With his blue lights flashing, he positioned his vehicle in an attempt to stop the car, jumped out of his vehicle and fired one shot into the side of Rogers' 2011 Ford Fusion.
The bullet hit Rogers in the head, killing him at the scene.
Initially, Burns told investigators that Rogers did not listen when he yelled "Stop!" and tried to run him over.
"He clearly made a decision to run me over, you know, and kill me," Rogers said. "And I'm thinking about, you know, I gotta protect myself."
Yet police determined that Rogers made no attempt to strike Burns, who was standing behind his own car when he fired. A dashboard camera video from another officer's patrol car showed Burns immediately after the shot, walking from behind his car toward the place Rogers' car had just passed.
The Atlanta Police Department's internal affairs investigation found Burns had no reason to think Rogers posed a risk or was involved in criminal activity. Chief George Turner fired Burns in July after the investigation determined Burns used "unnecessary and unreasonable" force.
Findling, however, insisted that, in the moment, Burns felt his life was threatened, and that the case was entirely different from other prominent examples of police brutality that resulted in the deaths of black men, such as Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Burns, he said, couldn't see inside Rogers' car.
"He couldn't see what he was looking at," he said. "The issue is whether he was reasonably in fear."
"We're talking about a matter of seconds," he added. "I recognize the tragedy here. A young man lost his life. It's also a tragedy that a man in his 30s could be looking at spending the rest of his life in jail."
Ahead of the grand jury decision, family members and supporters began a 24-hour vigil Tuesday evening outside the Fulton County courthouse, holding hands in a prayer circle and marching around the building as they called for an indictment.
Last month, attorneys for the victim's mother, Melva Rogers, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Atlanta, Turner and Burns. The suit claimed not only that Burns "acted willfully and wantonly" toward Rogers, causing his death, but also that the city and its police chief had "exhibited a pattern and practice of ignoring and violating the rights of the citizens of Georgia" and "negligently supervised and trained" its employees.
On Wednesday evening, Rogers' parents, Deravis Thomas and Melva Rogers, expressed gratitude for the indictment.
"We would like to thank the Fulton County district attorney's office for its hard work, and also the community for all of its love and support as we continue on this journey towards justice for Caine," they said in a statement. "We are very pleased with this outcome, and though nothing can bring our son back, we know this is a powerful first step."
Jarvie is a special correspondent.
7:20 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reports.