Grand jury refuses to indict officer for fatal mall shooting

Published: Apr. 17, 2023 at 4:58 PM CDT
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FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) — A grand jury has refused to indict a former northern Virginia police officer after he fatally shot an unarmed shoplifting suspect outside a busy shopping mall in February.

Authorities presented the case to a grand jury for an indictment against Wesley Shifflett, who shot and killed Timothy McCree Johnson outside Tysons Corner Center on Feb. 22.

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano — who ran for office on a reform agenda that included holding police accountable for misdeeds — had called a press conference Monday, presumably to announce criminal charges.

But the noon press conference was first delayed, then canceled. Later in the day, Descano issued a statement saying he’s “evaluating all options” following the grand jury’s decision.

“Since, by law, no prosecutors were permitted to be present in the room when the investigating officers made their presentation to the grand jury, I can’t say for sure what information was conveyed to the grand jurors,” Descano said.

The shooting occurred after Shifflett and another Fairfax County police officer chased Johnson on foot from the mall after receiving a report from security guards that Johnson had stolen sunglasses from a Nordstrom department store.

Dimly lit body camera video shows the chase and the shooting. The officer is heard saying “Get on the ground” and later saying “stop reaching” as shots are fired. After the shooting, Shifflett tells another officer that he saw Johnson “continually reaching in his waistband.”

A search of the grounds after the shooting turned up no weapons.

Shifflett’s lawyer, Caleb Kershner, praised the grand jury for its decision.

“The grand jury has seen this case for exactly what it is,” Kershner said.

Kershner said Johnson’s death is a tragedy but that his client acted reasonably when he believed he saw Johnson reaching for a weapon in his waistband.

Shifflett was fired last month for what Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis called “a failure to live up to the expectations of our agency, in particular use of force policies.”

A lawyer for Johnson’s family likened the shooting to an execution. Johnson’s mother, Melissa Johnson, said officers shot her son when all they knew at the time was “that he was Black and male and had allegedly triggered an alarm from a store for some sunglasses.”

Descano, in his statement, said he had contacted Johnson’s family Monday morning and told them he expected an indictment.

“So I can only imagine their pain and shock when they received the news that the officer — who shot and killed their unarmed son — was not indicted,” he said.

The Johnson family’s lawyer, Carl Crews, said Descano’s office had indicated to the family that prosecutors anticipated obtaining a manslaughter indictment.

Crews noted how rare it is for grand juries to reject an indictment; he said he suspects that police officers who presented the evidence — something that’s done in Virginia outside of prosecutors’ presence — shaded their delivery to protect one of their own.

“We have to figure out a way to crush the blue wall of silence,” Crews said, advocating for Descano to try again with a different grand jury.

Defense lawyer Kershner said it would be “vindictive and almost anti-police” if Descano were to try to obtain an indictment from a different grand jury.

“The grand jury, thank God, did the right thing, and the commonwealth’s attorney’s office now has to accept that,” he said.