ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jury selection began Monday in the trial of two former Albuquerque police officers charged with second-degree murder in the on-duty shooting death of a homeless man, with attorneys questioning potential jurors on their views of law enforcement and the hot-button topic of the use of force by police.
The court faces the challenge of seating an impartial jury in a case that received unprecedented media attention for the city when 38-year-old James Boyd was fatally shot following a hillside standoff with more than a dozen officers. Now-retired Detective Keith Sandy and former Officer Dominique Perez are charged in the March 2014 shooting that led to protests two years ago in New Mexico’s largest city.
Perez’s police-assigned body camera captured the standoff, showing Boyd as he stood in a rocky patch of the Sanda Mountain foothills, where he had been camping illegally, and officers opening fire.
In her opening remarks to prospective jurors, special prosecutor Randi McGinn said the issue of shootings by police has become “one of the most polarizing issues of our time,” while Luis Robles, an attorney for Perez, asked jurors whether they believed a police body camera alone could offer a complete picture of the standoff and shooting.
“Some folks believe the use of body cameras is a good thing; others think it (offers) a limited story,” Robles said. “Who here thinks the camera could tell the whole story?”
Boyd’s death led to calls from Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry for the U.S. Justice Department to accelerate its investigation into Albuquerque police’s use of force. That investigation was prompted by dozens of shootings in the city by police over a four-year period.
Since then, Albuquerque police have started implementing a series of reforms mandated by a settlement agreement with the Justice Department that stresses officers de-escalate crisis situations when possible before using force.
The trial for Sandy and Perez comes amid debate nationwide over other fatal shootings by police, as well as deadly attacks on law enforcement that have led to heightened tensions in cities in other states.
“People have become polarized,” McGinn said. “We saw in (jury) questionnaires some say that we shouldn’t second-guess our law enforcement. Others say police should not be above the law.”
More than 800 potential jurors filled out the questionnaire, and about 50 jurors were called in for questioning on Monday after prosecutors and the officers’ attorneys combed through the list of about 480 qualifying jurors from the survey.
A central factor that jurors must weigh is whether Boyd posed a life-threatening danger to officers, prompting Perez and Sandy to shoot, as their attorneys say their training called for them to do.
In police video of the shooting, Boyd, who had two knives during the standoff, seemed prepared to surrender and started gathering his belongings, just before a smoke bomb went off near him, leading the situation to unravel. He appeared to reach for his knives, and then turn away from police as officers opened fire.
Boyd was shot in the back and arms, and he died at a hospital.
Opening statements and testimony in the two-week trial for Sandy and Perez are scheduled to get underway next week.