PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) – Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel on Monday declined to pursue criminal charges against a Department of Public Safety trooper in connection with the shooting death of Dion Johnson.
"Trooper Cervantes reasonably feared for his life,"said Adel. "Criminal charges against the trooper are not warranted."
Adel said she did not make her decision lightly but had to consider the likelihood of getting a conviction in court. She also said the lack of criminal charges does not affect a possibility of potential civil action.
Before running through the background of the case, Adel addressed those who might believe that law enforcement officers will not face charges simply because they are officers, saying that is "absolutely not true" in Maricopa County.
"When the facts and evidence justify a criminal prosecution against an officer, this office has charged those cases, and we will continue to do so. Officers do not get a greater benefit of doubt than any other person facing criminal prosecution," she said. "No matter who you are ... if you commit a crime in our county, you will be held accountable."
Adel explained that four citizens reviewed the case and submitted their opinion. Adel said this opinion, along with full a committee opinion, was considered in making the decision. "When it comes to making a charging decision on a case such as this, I don’t make the decision alone," she said. "I consult with others who have a range of experience to fully explore and discuss the evidence and legal implications of the evidence."
WHAT HAPPENED ON MAY 25
The shooting involving Johnson occurred on Monday, May 25, around 5:30 a.m. at the Loop 101 and Tatum Boulevard.
New video shows the moments after 28-year-old Dion Johnson was shot and killed by the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Trooper George Cervantes was in the area of the Loop 101 and Tatum Boulevard and saw a car parked in the gore point, partially blocking traffic. Cervantes saw a 28-year-old man, identified as Johnson, sleeping in the vehicle. As Cervantes then approached the car from the passenger-side, he smelled a strong odor of alcohol and saw open alcoholic containers, Adel said. He reportedly also saw a gun on the passenger seat. Cervantes reached into the vehicle and removed the gun, securing it, then tried to get the key out of the ignition, but could not remove it.
Then, Cervantes noticed movement in the car and was concerned that Johnson was waking up and might try to drive away, so he "decided to make the arrest before the car could become a danger to others," Adel said.
Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel announced on Monday she won't be filing charges against the Department of Public Safety trooper who sho…
Cervantes approached the driver’s side of the car, opened the door, placed one handcuff on Mr. Johnson’s left wrist, and a struggle ensued, Adel continued. But then, Johnson turned his body in a way Cervantes feared he would be either pushed or kicked into oncoming traffic and that he would be killed, so, "Fearing for his life, Trooper Cervantes drew his firearm and told Mr. Johnson not to resist or he would shoot him. Mr. Johnson appeared to relax at this point, so Cervantes decided to re-holster his weapon," Adel said.
When Cervantes looked down at his holster to put the gun away, Adel said that Johnson grabbed the Trooper’s vest with one hand and used his other hand to grab Cervantes’ wrist, right above the hand that was still holding the gun. "
"Mr. Johnson then pulled Cervantes partially into the car and the struggle continued. In the midst of this struggle, Trooper Cervantes said that he again feared for his life because he thought he would lose control of his gun, so he fired his weapon twice, with one of those bullets striking Mr. Johnson, Adel said.
Johnson was treated at the scene and was transported to the hospital, but did not survive.
Adel said there was physical evidence, photographic evidence as well as accounts from multiple witnesses about what happened. However, the lawyer for Johnson's family questioned those witness accounts, saying, "Yes, there were witnesses... but they "were driving on the highway at high rates of speed," he said.
However, Adel said there was substantial corroborating evidence to Cervantes' account of the events that day. “This is not a case where we simply took the officer’s word at what happened," she said.
Push for body cameras on troopers
But neither trooper was equipped with body-worn cameras, and Adel called this a "concern." "When trying to determine what happens after an event like this... more information is always better," she said.
The attorney for Dion's family calls it a "one-sided story."
"No body-worn cameras, no dash cameras, no video. There's no way possible you can objectively determine whether Officer Cervantes' statements were accurate."
Bill Richardson is a retired master police officer with the Mesa Police Department. He believes in today's world, there is an expectation for officers to be wearing body cameras.
"There's a public perception that they're a necessity. I think whether DPS wants to do it or not should be a priority if they want to maintain public trust," Richardson said.
DPS does not provide their troopers with body cameras. However, they said they support Gov. Doug Ducey's advocacy to have all patrol troopers outfitted with them.
"I think a body camera in this situation would have given a perspective from what the officer saw from the time he got off his motorcycle and what led up to his decision to use deadly force," Richardson said. "The reality is, to charge a police officer with a crime, the evidence has to be overwhelming."
Richardson adds that when body cameras are worn, the footage should be released to the public as soon as possible, unedited.
"I think that what's happened with body cameras when law enforcement doesn't release it immediately, or they release a redacted version, or they make excuses for not releasing it, then it creates distrust in the public's eyes," Richardson explained. "They're their own worst enemies by not releasing it. And when they release it, it's redacted, or it's delayed, or when they release it, there's (sic) caveats to it. If you're going to have it, release it and let the public see it."
The Arizona Department of Public Safety is now saying it is still in the middle of its internal investigation regarding the trooper who shot and killed Dion Johnson.
The investigation into the shooting was conducted by the Phoenix Police Department, while the AZDPS’ Internal Affairs did an internal investigation before sending to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to review on July 15.
Cervantes is a 15-year veteran with the DPS and he remains on administrative leave. He has previous complaints on his record with allegations of racial profiling and discourteous treatment, according to official documentation.
Dion’s mother says she believes Cervantes was the aggressor, not her son. She said even though Dion may have resisted arrest, he did not deserve to die. "Did that give him the right to shoot my son?" said Erma Johnson. "If he had followed protocol, this wouldn't be happening right now. If he had waited for backup, this would not be happening right now."
"I still feel George Cervantes is a monster, and he needs to be arrested for my son's murder," Erma continued. "Deep down in my heart, I knew that they weren't going to charge him for my son's murder," she said.