Should the prosecutor indict a police officer in the murder of Patrick Lyoya? Legal experts intervene
GRAND RAPIDS, MI — As the Kent County prosecutor mulls whether or not to charge a Grand Rapids police officer with the shooting death of Patrick Lyoya, legal experts have differing opinions on the outcome.
Three law professors contacted by MLive/The Grand Rapids Press weighed in on what Kent County Attorney Chris Becker is considering, based on their expertise. Becker is reviewing the Michigan State Police’s investigation so far into the April 4 murder of Lyoya, 26.
One professor, Shelly Taylor Page, said if she was the prosecutor she would try the case, while another professor, Lewis Langham Jr., said the decision was a “close call”. Page has not committed to a specific charge for this case.
A third teacher, Mark Osler, said he needed all the information before making a decision, but “when you look at the video, it certainly looks like one where they should be looking closely at a charge.” he declared.
Grand Rapids Police Officer Christopher Schurr shot and killed Lyoya during an April 4 traffic stop that turned into a fight between the two. Lyoya was arrested because his license plate did not match that of his vehicle.
After a struggle between Schurr and Lyoya, video footage of the incident shows Schurr on top of Lyoya and Schurr shooting him in the back of the neck.
“There are so many instances where a video like this makes us say, ‘He should have been arrested last week,'” said Page, assistant professor of law and director of experiential education at Southern Illinois University. School of Law, at MLive/Grand Rapids Press.
“But, there may be information that we, as the general public, are not aware of that would explain what a reasonable officer would have done in this situation,” she added.
The Michigan State Police submitted much of their investigation into Lyoya’s murder to the district attorney’s office on April 28. Becker expects state police to complete the investigative report by the end of this week or next week, he said in a statement on Wednesday, May 18.
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Page, who once served as a criminal prosecutor in Austin, Texas, said Kent County prosecutors had to consider many factors before making a decision, including what they could prove to a jury; the resources needed if charges are laid; and the officer’s criminal history as well as his history with the Grand Rapids Police Department.
Schurr’s personnel file, which MLive obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, contains two complaints from 2021 and several awards.
Due to city employment conditions and union stipulations, his personnel file did not include any potential complaints that may have arisen prior to the past two years.
Several “Justice for Patrick” marches and protests have taken place in Grand Rapids since the video footage of the shooting was released. The demonstrators, demanding justice, also forced the municipal commissioners to prematurely end two of their meetings.
Public feedback is another factor that could weigh on the prosecutor’s mind, Page said.
“If I was the prosecutor, we would try this case,” Page said. “We are doing our best to get an impartial and fair jury that can listen to all the evidence.”
This is the fifth police shooting case Becker has reviewed since 2020.
Langham, a professor at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, said the prosecutor has several options to consider charges against Schurr, if any.
“The prosecutor must take into account even if his office accuses Agent Schurr of what he accuses him of, keep in mind that whatever Patrick Lyoya was doing at the time will enter into the trial process”, a said Langham.
Video footage shows Schurr attempting to overpower and arrest Lyoya after Lyoya attempted to flee. Soon after, the pair struggled and fought for control of Schurr’s Taser, which Schurr had deployed twice but failed to hit Lyoya. Shortly after, Schurr fired the fatal shot.
“…It doesn’t justify the shooting itself, but Patrick Lyoya was committing a (attempt to disarm a police officer) or two crimes at the time all of this was happening,” said Langham, who spent a 25-year career with the State of Michigan. The police before his legal profession.
RELATED: As the prosecutor examines the murder of Patrick Lyoya, here’s how he ruled in 11 previous police shootings
Becker has previously said he will not recuse himself from the case.
“That’s one of the problems with these local cases,” said Osler, professor and holder of the Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota.
Osler, a former federal prosecutor, said that in similar incidents — an officer shooting a civilian — in Minnesota, the charging decision is often not made by the prosecutor in the jurisdiction where the crime was committed.
“You have a public demand for a resolution in terms of charging and at the same time prosecutors work regularly with police and charging a police officer can potentially damage the relationship going forward,” Osler said.
Becker has previously said he has no conflict about it and doesn’t know Schurr or Lyoya. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel previously said she was willing to take the case if offered.
“There can be real wisdom in taking that decision away from the local actor who is going to work with the police on an ongoing basis,” Osler said.
Although Becker does not recuse himself from the case, he seeks more advice from others.
“In reviewing the material that has been provided so far, I have determined that additional expert advice – beyond the scope of MSP – is necessary for me to make an informed decision” , he said in the statement on Wednesday. “I started looking for this expert advice.”
“While I may soon receive the full investigation from MSP, that does not mean that my decision is imminent,” he added.
Schurr remains on administrative leave, without his police powers, pending a state police investigation of possible criminal charges and an internal affairs investigation to determine whether department policy was followed.
He has been with the ministry for almost seven years.
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