Prosecutor clears Charlotte officer in Keith Scott’s death, says Scott was armed

AP Photo
AP Photo

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A prosecutor on Wednesday cleared a Charlotte police officer in the killing of a black man whose death touched off civil unrest, and he presented detailed evidence to rebut assertions that the slain man was unarmed.

Officer Brentley Vinson was justified in opening fire on Keith Scott and won’t face charges, Charlotte-Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray said.

In a 40-minute news presentation to news reporters, Murray produced evidence that Keith Scott was armed with a handgun and the officer who killed him feared Scott would shoot.

The announcement “profoundly disappointed” Scott’s family, but they haven’t decided whether to file a lawsuit, their lawyer said.

Scott, 43, was killed Sept. 20 in the parking lot of an apartment complex.

Much of Murray’s presentation centered on the gun and debunking witnesses who said Scott wasn’t armed.

Murray displayed a store’s surveillance video taken shortly before the incident, showing the outline of what appeared to be a holstered gun on Scott’s ankle. He said Scott’s DNA was found on a Colt .380-caliber semi-automatic handgun recovered at the scene.

He shared a Facebook conversation from the man who said he sold the stolen gun to Scott and recognized him from TV coverage after the shooting, and police radio traffic where officers talked about the gun before confronting Scott.

He also released his report online and asked the public to review his findings before protesting again. Two nights of protests after the shooting resulted in looted stores near the scene and in downtown Charlotte, millions of dollars of damage, a fatal shooting and more than two dozen injuries to police officers and others.

“The community should read the report. Digest the report. Please do not act viscerally on news snippets,” Murray said.

Murray said his team of homicide prosecutors reviewed the evidence, along with other lawyers. He said the investigation relied on 63 State Bureau of Investigation agents working for 2,300 hours. Murray said every one of them agreed with his conclusion.

“All of the credible, available and believable evidence supports the conclusion that Scott was armed with a gun,” Murray said.

Immediately after the shooting, a video of Scott’s final moments recorded by his wife, Rakeyia, was posted on social media. In it, she shouted to police that her husband “doesn’t have a gun.” She pleaded with officers not to shoot before a burst of gunfire could be heard.

Minutes after Murray spoke to reporters, Scott family attorney Justin Bamberg said at a news conference that there still isn’t definitive proof Scott had a gun in his hand when he was shot.

Scott’s family is profoundly disappointed at the decision not to charge Vinson, but thanked Murray for meeting with them for an hour to answer their questions, Bamberg said.

Anyone who’s upset should not get violent but should work on changing a system that lets officers shoot people without taking more steps to prevent confrontations from becoming deadly, Bamberg said. He added that he understood why prosecutors decided not to file charges.

“That does not mean that this officer’s killing of Keith Scott was right. All that means is that under the view of the DA’s office, it wasn’t criminal. And those are two completely different things,” Bamberg said.

Rakeyia Scott stood behind the lawyers with her sister, Rachel Dotch. They didn’t speak to reporters.

The shooting happened after plainclothes officers went to the complex looking for a suspect with an outstanding warrant when two undercover officers saw Scott — not the suspect they were looking for — inside a car with a gun and marijuana, Murray said.

The officers said they would have ignored the marijuana, but the gun made the situation dangerous to others. They left to get backup, then returned to arrest Scott, Murray said.

Officers said Scott exited the SUV with a gun, ignored at least 10 orders to drop the weapon and appeared to be in a trance, Murray said.

As Scott locked eyes with him, Vinson told investigators , “I felt like if I didn’t do anything right then, at that point it’s like he was going to shoot me or he’s going to shoot one of my buddies, and it was going to happen right now,” Vinson told investigators the next day.

Scott’s wife had told reporters and investigators her husband had no gun. But in August, the couple had argued on text messagesabout the weapon, with Rakeyia Scott reminding her husband he could get 25 years in prison because he was a felon who wasn’t supposed to have one.

The case was among a series across the country since mid-2014 that spurred a national debate over race and policing.

A murder trial is underway in Charleston, South Carolina, for a since-fired white patrolman, Michael Slager, in the 2015 death of a black man, Walter Scott, who was shot while running from a traffic stop.

A Minnesota police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile during a July traffic stop remains free as a manslaughter case against him proceeds.

Deaths of other unarmed black males at the hands of law enforcement officers have inspired protests under the “Black Lives Matter” moniker.

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