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Judge favors manslaughter charge in police shooting of teen

DELRAY BEACH, Florida (Court TV) -- A judge ruled Thursday morning that a rookie police officer used excessive force when he shot a fleeing teenager in the back of his head outside of a high school dance and recommended that the officer be charged with manslaughter.

Palm Beach County Court Judge Debra Moses Stephens issued her decision after hearing testimony during a three-day coroner's inquest into the February 26 shooting death of Jerrod Miller, 16, who is black, by white Delray Beach Police officer Darren Cogoni.

Cogoni fired several times toward the back of the Cadillac that Miller was driving. The teen had sped away from Cogoni outside of the Delray Full Service Center, an alternative high school for troubled teens.

One bullet crashed through the rear window and struck Miller in the back of the head, killing him almost instantly, a medical examiner testified during the inquest.

'Emotionally charged situation'

The shooting stirred racial tensions in this seaside town, which led State Attorney Barry Krischer to hold an inquest so the investigation and evidence could be presented publicly rather than in private before a grand jury.

Stephens' ruling is a nonbinding recommendation, and the decision to prosecute rests with the state attorney, who could take weeks deciding how to proceed. Krischer's office declined to comment, citing the ongoing nature of the criminal investigation.

Addressing about 40 courtroom observers, Stephens acknowledged that the inquest was "an emotionally charged situation," and then issued her brief decision.

"The court finds probable cause for manslaughter," Stephens said, adding that the rookie cop's actions were not competent or justified. "The court finds Officer Darren Cogoni responsible for the death of Jerrod Miller," she said.

Reaction in the courtroom during the ruling was muted, but as friends and family members spilled out there were hugs and tears. At a press conference just outside of the courthouse, Miller's grandmother Phyllis said she was pleased with the recommendation.

"Our prayers have been answered," Miller said. "The truth was just there, it was all just evidence."

Willie Gary, an attorney for the Miller family, said he expected the state attorney's office to follow through with the appropriate charges against Cogoni. "I hope this decision will send a message to the state attorney to do the right thing," he said. "This is not a black decision, it's a right decision. It could have been some white boy or girl ... gross negligence was a major issue."

Attorneys for Officer Cogoni, who declined to testify at the inquest, refused to comment on the ruling.

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