No criminal charges will be filed against a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy who shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez last year as the boy walked down the street carrying an airsoft BB gun that resembled an AK-47 rifle, District Attorney Jill Ravitch announced Monday.
Calling the Oct. 22 shooting and community upheaval that has followed a 'painful, painful chapter in the history of Sonoma County,' Ravitch said her office found that Deputy Erick Gelhaus acted within the law when he shot Lopez.
'While this was absolutely a tragedy, it was not a criminal act,' Ravitch said.
In announcing her decision, Ravitch released a 52-page summary of her findings that includes several new details about the shooting, including that Lopez was likely high on marijuana at the time he was killed.
Blood samples taken from Lopez's body during the autopsy revealed significant levels of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, according to the report. The levels were consistent with Lopez smoking marijuana 60 to 75 minutes prior to his death, according to Dr. Reese Jones, a specialist hired by the District Attorney's Office to review the findings.
Lopez also had a joint and a bottle of Visine on his body at the time he was killed, according to the report. The THC levels in Lopez's system likely affected his behavior that day, Jones said.
'Cognitive and behavioral effects that typically follow marijuana use would likely have been present to a significant degree during the interval following,' Jones wrote, according to the report.
A 13-year-old boy high on marijuana would likely have had suffered 'impaired judgment, slowed decision making and increased mental processing time,' the report found, 'particularly when having to deal with performance of a sudden, unanticipated tasks, including decisions that needed to be quickly responded to.'
The new information provides potentially important context for the day of the shooting and may help explain why Lopez did not initially drop the gun when ordered and instead turned toward officers.
Gelhaus, a 24-year Sonoma County deputy and Iraq War veteran, told Santa Rosa police investigating the shooting that he thought Lopez was carrying a real assault rifle when he ordered the boy to drop the gun. Lopez did not drop the gun and instead began to turn, the barrel of the airsoft gun rising as he pivoted, according to police. The deputy fired eight rounds, striking him seven times.
Investigators determined Gelhaus feared for his life and prosecutors concluded his response — including the number of shots he fired, in a span of several seconds — was reasonable, Ravitch said.
She noted that Gelhaus's weapon holds 18 rounds and can fire eight rounds in two seconds.
'The evidence establishes that while in the lawful performance of his duties, Deputy Gelhaus was faced with a highly unpredictable and rapidly evolving situation,' Ravitch said. 'Given his training and experience, he believed honestly and reasonably that he was faced with a do-or-die dilemma.'
His options were to wait for Lopez to fire what he believed to be a deadly weapon at him and his partner, or to fire at Lopez 'when the threat was turned toward him,' Ravitch said.
'Here the implementation of lethal force was a reasonable response under the circumstances according to all the evidence that we have reviewed,' she said.
The announcement was met with outrage outside the 2 p.m. press conference at the county government administration complex, where protesters denounced Ravitch's decision and vowed to press for justice for Lopez. One carried a sign that read simply 'Shame.'
Jonathan Melrod, an attorney and one of the most vocal activists, said Ravitch's decision was based on 'patent lies.'
He described Lopez as 'a boy with a toy gun who did not pose a threat to anyone, to the deputy, to the neighborhood. He was a kid!' Melrod screamed into a scrum of television cameras. 'That is an injustice that cannot be permitted!'
He and others who have called for Gelhaus' prosecution said the shooting was a consequence of the wider militarization of the nation's police departments.
'The police feel that we the community are their enemy,' Melrod said. 'They police us as though they are still in Iraq or Afghanistan.'
Melrod later said he had been unaware that Lopez had marijuana in his system until informed by a reporter. He said the focus on marijuana in the report was a 'transparent attempt' to deflect blame away from 'the sheriff's deputy who pulled the trigger and to place it on Andy Lopez.'
'Let's assume there was THC. Does that justify executing Andy?' said Melrod, who questioned why Ravitch waited until now to raise the issue.
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