ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Two Albuquerque police officers whose shooting death of a homeless man during a hillside standoff led to protests and national outcry will stand trial for murder this month, with jury selection in the case set to begin Monday.
Police video of the shooting of James Boyd in 2014 set the stage for demonstrations and marches that paralyzed parts of New Mexico’s largest city, where tensions over a high rate of officer-involved shootings had been building for years.
The shooting preceded a broader national debate about officers’ use of force, and led Albuquerque’s mayor to push for the U.S. Justice Department to accelerate an investigation into the police department.
Former Albuquerque officers Dominique Perez and Keith Sandy are charged with second-degree murder and aggravated assault in Boyd’s death.
Sandy has since retired from the force. Perez lost his job last year under a city policy that calls for terminating employees arraigned on criminal charges.
Here’s a look at the case and the court-mandated police reforms in the city now underway as the Sept. 19 trial in the case approaches:
On March 16, 2014, James Boyd was shot dead after a nearly five-hour standoff with Albuquerque police in a rocky patch of the Sandia Mountain foothills. Boyd — a homeless man who authorities said struggled with mental illness and had a lengthy criminal history — was there camping illegally before officers were dispatched to the area following complaints from a nearby resident.
Perez began recording the encounter with his police helmet camera after he arrived on the scene.
The standoff escalated as more Albuquerque and state police officers responded to the scene. Boyd shouted threats and made outlandish claims about being the “Department of Defense.”
There was a short span toward nightfall when Boyd seemed prepared to surrender and started gathering his belongings. But the situation quickly unraveled when a smoke bomb went off near Boyd.
A rapid, eight-second chain of events followed in which Boyd reached for his knives and officers closest to him moved toward him. In the video, there is a split-second where Boyd appears to be turning away from police before officers open fire.
Boyd was shot in the back and arms.
He was taken to a hospital where his arm was amputated in an effort to save his life. He died early the next morning.
The trial for Perez and Sandy is scheduled to begin Sept. 19 after attorneys spend next week picking a jury.
A central factor that jurors must weigh is whether Boyd posed a life-threatening danger to officers on the scene, prompting Perez and Sandy to shoot as their attorneys argue that police training called for them to do.
Defense attorneys and special prosecutor Randi McGinn are reviewing scores of potential jurors and deciding what they’ll be asked as they’re vetted.
The shooting has been the subject of countless news reports, and it’s not clear whether the unprecedented level of media coverage for the state will add to the challenge of seating an unbiased jury.
Attorneys on both sides have sparred over what evidence can be presented at trial, which witnesses will be allowed to testify and what portions of the video that sparked protest in the city can be shown.
A judge sided with the officers’ attorneys that the portion of the police video showing Boyd on the ground after he is shot cannot be shown in court because it could lead jurors to make an emotional decision. Those moments of the police video show Boyd lying motionless as officers fire another bean bag round at him and shout that a knife is still in his hand. A K-9 bites his leg and moves it.
The trial is expected to extend into October.
POLICE REFORMS UNDERWAY
A month after the shooting, Justice Department investigators released a report that said Albuquerque police officers too frequently used deadly force on people who posed a minimal threat, and often used higher level of force on those with mental illness.
The Justice Department and the city later signed a settlement agreement that mapped a plan for overhauling the police department. Police are still in the first year of the reform process that has so far led to policy changes for special tactical teams, such as the SWAT unit where Perez had been assigned, and use-of-force procedures that emphasize de-escalating crisis situations.
In a report this summer, the court-appointed monitor tasked with tracking the reforms said Albuquerque police’s SWAT unit has become one of the strongest teams within the department. Officers are being trained regularly on how to resolve crisis situations with the least amount of physical force necessary, the monitor said. The result has been fewer deaths and injuries in incidents involving SWAT officers.