01:09 - Source: CNN
New Mexico cops on trial in homeless man's shooting

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Defendants are first city officers to face prosecution for killing someone in the line of duty in 30 years

Albuquerque Police Department is being monitored by the Department of Justice

Albuquerque, New Mexico CNN —  

Police in Albuquerque were already under scrutiny for a series of fatal shootings when officers responded March 16, 2014, to a complaint about a homeless man camping in the foothills above the city.

Hours later, after a tense standoff, the man lay dead, shot three times by police. The incident, captured on video by an officer’s body camera, ignited community outrage and led prosecutors to charge two officers with murder – the first Albuquerque police officers to be prosecuted for killing someone in the line of duty in more than 30 years.

Former Albuquerque officers Dominique Perez and Keith Sandy go on trial here Monday on charges of second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and aggravated battery. The case is one of a handful of fatal police shootings in recent years to capture national attention, sparking protests coast to coast amid a growing debate about law enforcement’s use of deadly force.

But there’s another layer to the story.

A month after the 2014 shooting, an investigation by the Department of Justice found a “pattern or practice of use of excessive force” by Albuquerque police going back years. The department has agreed to make changes. But some observers will be watching the trial closely, fearing that not-guilty verdicts will make it harder for prosecutors to hold police accountable when they go too far.

Here’s a closer look at the case.

What happened the night James Boyd died

The moments before and after James Boyd was shot and killed have been watched over and over. A body camera worn by Perez recorded the police officers’ fatal shots.

A family photo of James Boyd, killed by Albuquerque police
Courtesy Boyd Family
A family photo of James Boyd, killed by Albuquerque police

Dozens of law enforcement personnel had responded to 911 calls and converged on Boyd, who friends say was camping illegally in the foothills of Albuquerque. The city’s homeless shelters had closed for the night.

Boyd, 38, who had a history of mental illness and who had bounced between mental facilities, jail and homeless shelters over the years, is seen on police video refusing to obey officer commands to leave the hillside.

According to court documents, he threatened violence toward police multiple times during the hours-long standoff and is heard on video recorded by a bystander, saying, “I’m going to hunt you down and kill you.”

The body cam shows Boyd with two small camping knives in his hands as police move closer to his makeshift campsite on a small nest of rocks.

Footage from police cameras before James Boyd was shot.
Albuquerque Police Department
Footage from police cameras before James Boyd was shot.

Suddenly, things get chaotic. Boyd appears to step toward officers. Police fire a stun grenade, then a police K9 and his handler rush forward. A few more seconds pass before Boyd turns his back, just as multiple gunshots are fired.

Boyd falls to the ground. While he is lying on his stomach, still holding the knives, officers sic a dog on his legs and fire beanbag rounds at him. Boyd can be heard wheezing for breath.

A coroner ruled Boyd’s death a homicide. An autopsy showed he was shot three times, including in the lower back and both arms.

What each side is saying

Sandy’s attorney, Sam Bregman, has argued the dog handler’s life was in danger when his client opened fire.

“Officer (Scott) Weimerskirch is alive today because of Keith Sandy,” Bregman said.

“The reality is…. If you watch somebody being shot and killed, it isn’t pleasant. It’s repulsive,” said Perez’s attorney, Luis Robles, acknowledging the challenge his team faces to prove there’s more to the story than what meets the eye.

But Special Prosecutor Randi McGinn argued at the officers’ preliminary hearing that “reasonable people don’t shoot people in the back.” The judge later agreed there was probable cause for the case to go to trial.

The trial is also expected to include testimony regarding training and department use of force policies. Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden will likely be questioned.

Days after the shooting, Chief Eden told reporters, “Do I believe it was a justified shooting? Yes.” He later told CNN that he “spoke prematurely.”

Albuquerque Police and ‘excessive force’

Boyd’s case ignited a firestorm in Albuquerque and focused national attention on other shootings by police officers in the city.

He became the 26th civilian shot and killed by Albuquerque police officers since 2010, a per capita rate of officer-involved deaths that was higher than New York City and Chicago for the same period.

Even before Boyd’s death the police department was the focus of a Department of Justice investigation that in April of 2014 found “structural and systemic deficiencies” that were contributing to “use of unreasonable force” and that “allowed the department to remain unaccountable to the communities it serves.”

The DOJ cited 20 fatal officer-involved shootings between 2009 and 2012. Federal investigators concluded that “a majority of these shootings were unconstitutional.”

The Albuquerque Police Department agreed to make a litany of changes as part of a 106-page settlement agreement with federal authorities.

Federal investigations

After recent controversial fatal shootings in Chicago, Minneapolis and other cities, many police departments around the country find themselves in a similar position.

In the last seven years, the Department of Justice has opened 23 civil investigations into police departments nationwide concerning use of force and other issues related to how officers interact with communities they serve.

Five of those investigations remain open, with another 18 law enforcement agencies – among them Seattle, Washington; Ferguson, Missouri; and Baltimore, Maryland – now under reform agreements that entail federal supervision.

In each case, the reform process is expected to take years, entailing overhaul of police department policies, new training, and changes to internal investigatory practices.

’Significant, systemic’ issues

In his most recent review, federal independent monitor James Ginger applauds efforts to transform Albuquerque Police’s tactical units, including SWAT, the K9 unit and bomb squad.

“These units are guided by some of the best policy yet developed at APD,” Ginger wrote.

However, he still has harsh criticism for the department’s internal oversight and system for holding officers accountable, calling its ongoing issues “significant, systemic, and multi-faceted.”

Among the problems, his review found that “mistakes or misconduct led to reporting failures, delayed investigations, and the loss of potential evidence, including key statements,” as recently as March of this year, pertaining to the internal investigations process about officers’ use of force.

“It’s quite clear from his reports that APD command and supervisory staff still are not taking use-of-force incidents seriously,” said Peter Simonson, executive director for the ACLU of New Mexico.

Verdict could send an ‘important message’

“Over and over again these high-profile cases lead to acquittals or decisions not to try,” said New Mexico State Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino.

A skeptic of the current criminal justice system, Ortiz y Pino believes not-guilty verdicts for Perez and Sandy will make local prosecutors afraid to pursue other cases against police officers they rely on to gather evidence against defendants.

If the jury delivers a guilty verdict, Ortiz y Pino said it would send an “important message” to the incoming district attorney in Bernalillo County, “because it emboldens him to do his job without fear.”

Sandy and Perez are facing up to 15 years behind bars if convicted on the most serious charge of second-degree murder. Sandy retired from the force in November of 2014, prior to facing charges. Both he and Perez, who was terminated late last year, had clean disciplinary records before the Boyd incident.

Perez’s attorney said his client, a father of three and a military veteran, was simply doing his job on that fateful night in 2014 and hopes to get his job back with the Albuquerque Police Department.

“You would think he’d think, ‘Maybe it’s time to find another profession,’” said Robles. “But that’s not who these people are… They have a call to serve that most people don’t understand. That’s why he does it. That’s who he is.”

CNN’s David Fitzpatrick and Drew Griffin contributed to this report.