More than a year after a Black man died at the hands of police outside a New Mexico gas station, the state’s attorney general announced charges against one of the police officers at the scene, calling his actions an “unjustifiable use of force” and “yet another example of poor police tactics.”
Las Cruces Officer Brad Lunsford turned himself in to the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office October 3, his attorney, Luis Robles told CNN. He was charged with voluntary manslaughter with an additional count of firearm enhancement and released on his own recognizance, New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez said during a news conference the same day.
On August 2 last year, Lunsford, who is White, allegedly shot Presley Eze, a Black man, outside a Chevron gas station after an employee called 911 to report Eze left the store “with a beer he did not pay for,” the attorney general’s office said.
Lunsford, the first officer to arrive at the scene, questioned Eze, and after he was unable to verify his identity, “Lunsford and another officer forcibly removed Eze from the vehicle in order to detain him” and “a scuffle ensued” where Eze wound up on the ground, “on top of one of the responding officers,” according to the attorney general’s office.
A second officer who was present during the shooting has not been charged with a crime, arrest warrant documents show.
“During the ongoing struggle Eze placed his hand on the second officer’s taser though it was not cycled or deployed against either officer,” Torrez’s office said, and “in response Officer Lunsford drew his service weapon and shot Eze on the back, left side of his head at point-blank range.”
Officers had removed a closed pocketknife from Eze’s possession before the incident turned physical, according to arrest warrant documents. Eze was unarmed when he was shot.
Lunsford remained on active duty until the charges were filed and is now on paid administrative leave, CNN affiliate KOAT reported.
The incident, which was captured both on police bodycam video and witness cell phone footage, is one of the latest examples of police across the country facing accusations of excessive force as encounters with Black Americans ended in deadly violence.
Since 2005, 185 law enforcement officers have been arrested for murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty shooting in the US and only 59 have been convicted of a crime resulting from the shooting, according to data from Philip Matthew Stinson, a criminal justice expert at Bowling Green State University who has tracked the data for years.
“This was somebody’s son, this is somebody’s brother, and this is somebody’s father,” Torrez said during Tuesday’s news conference. “I think it’s important for people to understand who he was as a human being, and not to simply distill his life into seconds of a video captured on lapel or captured at a gas station.”
Eze, 37, was the oldest son of Nigerian immigrants who settled in West Hartford, Connecticut, a father to a 3-year-old son, a nursing supervisor at an elderly nursing home facility, a frequent churchgoer and a “gentle giant,” according to a family attorney and friend, John Sodipo.
“This was a very horrible situation,” said Robles, Lunsford’s attorney. “If you kind of watch the video you sort of realize there really is no other place to shoot than where the shot was actually placed.”
At this time, there is no evidence of malice or racial motivation, Torrez said, however if circumstances change, the charging documents can be amended, he said.
“I was in the Army in Africa and I know what it means to handle a gun,” Eze’s father, Isaac Eze said during Tuesday’s new conference. “You shoot somebody on the head, you want him dead.”
Documents filed in 2019 show Lunsford was named in a complaint for his role during a domestic disturbance call in 2014. In the complaint, the plaintiff names Lunsford and other officers in an incident where they were shot and allege Lunsford exercised excessive use of force. The complaint was dismissed in 2022.
CNN reached out to the Las Cruces Police Department, which deferred comment to Lunsford’s attorney.
Robles could not comment on any previous complaints but acknowledged their existence, he told CNN.
“The officers introduced violence at every level,” a statement from the Eze family said. “The family of Presley Eze trusts in the justice system and trusts that the death of Presley Eze will reveal once again that this country must reconcile its past use of slave patrols to terrorize Black bodies with the modern police use of deadly force to kill defenseless Black men.”
As part of the investigation into the incident, special agents with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office consulted with use of force experts, who watched the available video footage, and concluded Lunsford’s use of deadly force was not reasonable under the circumstances and there were other, less lethal avenues available to contain Eze, the attorney general’s office said in an online statement.
Robles said he had hoped the experts would have taken into account the officer’s eyewitness statements along with a review of the videos.
“The body worn camera videos can’t and don’t show much of anything,” Robles said. “And then there is a cell phone video, which shows some things but wouldn’t you want to know from the officer’s point of view, what he was able to see with his own two eyes?”
Joe Kennedy, an attorney for the Eze family called for a reexamination of Las Cruces Police Department policies as it pertains to use of force.
“We don’t want to miss any more opportunities to actually examine this activity, this police activity, this police detention from the moment if starts for areas where de-escalation can happen where it doesn’t have to go into a struggle,” Kennedy said during Tuesday’s news conference. “It doesn’t have to go into an officer body slamming Presley Eze on the pavement and creating an extremely volatile dynamic situation that no one was in control of until a bullet was put in this man’s head.”
Eze family attorney Shannon Kennedy said they plan to sue Lunsford as an individual.
CNN’s Virginia Langmaid and Taylor Romine contributed to this report.