Atlanta cop charged with murder in shooting of unarmed black man

A murder warrant was issued Friday for a former Atlanta police officer who fatally shot an unarmed motorist and who investigators later determined posed no threat to the officer, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said.

Officer James R. Burns, who was fired following the June 22 shooting of Deravis Caine Rogers, faces charges of felony murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and violation of his oath of office, according to a release by Howard on Friday night.

It’s highly unusual for a district attorney in Georgia to seek an officer’s arrest in a police shooting case before a grand jury meets to weigh the evidence, but Howard said his decision was based on what investigators have found so far.

“By reason of the evidence presented by several eye-witnesses, videos, and the findings of the Atlanta Police Department, we will proceed in this case in the same manner as any other defendant similarly charged — arrest, indictment and resolution,” said Howard in a statement.

Howard’s swift action comes as Atlanta police and city leaders have been on edge over a string of marches and protests sparked by deadly police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is scheduled to meet with protest leaders Monday after a tense standoff with demonstrators at the Governor’s Mansion Monday night.

Howard’s action is also another indicator that the officer’s justification for shooting Rogers’ was questionable. The Atlanta Police Department confirmed last week that Chief George N. Turner had fired Burns on July 1, less than two weeks after Rogers was killed, because the unarmed black man posed no threat to the officer.

In an internal affairs investigation into the shooting, Turner determined that Burns used excessive force and that his rationale for pulling his trigger was contradicted by other evidence.

Still, Howard’s decision to press ahead with an arrest warrant marks the beginning of what could be a challenging legal fight if he is to secure an indictment and conviction. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News investigation last year found that of 184 fatal police shootings between 2010 and 2015, not one led to criminal prosecution.

The case against Burns could be one of the first to test a new law that took effect July 1 that curtails police officers’ special grand jury privileges, such as his ability to testify without facing cross-examination.

On the night of the shooting, Burns arrived at the Monroe Place apartments shortly before midnight after an off-duty officer reported a suspicious person on foot at the apartment complex. Upon arriving, Burns spotted the driver of a 2011 silver Ford Fusion turn on the headlights and start to drive away.

He tried to pull his patrol car into the middle of the road to block the vehicle. But the Ford, driven by Rogers, maneuvered around Burns’ patrol car. The officer then jumped from his vehicle, yelled stop and shot through the passenger side window of the Ford as it drove away. The bullet struck Rogers in lower right side of his head and his car careened down the road before striking a vehicle in the parking lot of Cirque Daiquiri Bar and Grill on Monroe Drive.

Rogers was pronounced dead that evening at Grady.

Burns told APD investigators that Rogers tried to run him over. But investigators reviewed dashcam video that captured part of what happened. Several witnesses were also interviewed and APD determined the evidence did not support Burns’ version of events.

Howard appears to have reached a similar conclusion. The car driven by Rogers, who was unarmed, posed no threat to Burns, according to the DA’s statement. The statement said the Ford driven by Rogers “made no attempt to strike the officer” who was “safely standing at the rear of his own patrol vehicle” when he pulled his trigger.

“At the time of the shooting, Burns was not provided with any facts describing Rogers as a threat to the officer or the public. Neither was Rogers identified as the man the off-duty officer had previously reported,” according to the DA’s statement.

Burns has declined interview requests. In a statement issued earlier Friday, his attorney, Lance LoRusso, offered few details about his clients’ version of events, but said Burns was “forced” to use his weapon. He said his client planned to appeal his termination from the Atlanta police department and urged the public to give Burns the due process he is entitled to.

“The loss of any life is tragic and a thorough investigation is appropriate,” he said. “During this time, just like any other person who is the focus of a criminal investigation, Officer Burns is entitled to a presumption of innocence.”