Despite a civil grand jury’s recommendation that he indict, DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James has decided not to bring charges against the Avondale Estates officer who shot and killed a 20-year-old suspected car thief.
Jayvis Benjamin, who had no previous criminal record, died after a brief confrontation with Sgt. Lynn Thomas in January 2013. Video of the incident is inconclusive, with the shooting taking place off-camera. But James said the accounts of seven witnesses, each of whom alleged Benjamin was the aggressor, are consistent.
“Once you physically assault a police officer, deadly force is justified,” James said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. “We clearly have a scenario here where the officer is defending himself. He did not want to fight Jayvis Benjamin.”
James informed Benjamin’s family of his decision Friday afternoon. The family declined to speak with reporters following that meeting.
James’ decision is sure to bring criticism from the very activists who praised him in January after he charged DeKalb Police Officer Robert Olsen with murder in the shooting of Anthony Hill, an unarmed U.S. Air Force veteran. That indictment followed a split decision by a civil grand jury, impaneled by James to provide public guidance in controversial officer-involved shootings.
After a grand jury “strongly recommended” an indictment in Benjamin’s shooting, James said he “went back to the drawing board.”
An outside agency, Drago Professional Consultants, was brought in to conduct the investigation. According to their report, “Benjamin was continuing his assault on the officer when Sergeant Thomas fired.”
Thomas had been in pursuit of Benjamin after spotting him speeding through the intersection of Covington Highway and Kensington Road at roughly 80 mph. Benjamin, driving a Ford Mustang that had been reported stolen, spun out in a stranger’s front yard, striking a parked vehicle.
Dash cam footage captures Thomas approaching the vehicle, loudly ordering the suspect to remain in the vehicle. But Benjamin didn’t comply.
“The man in the car exited in a somewhat aggressive manner,” witness Jennifer Houpt told investigators. She lives next door to the house on Kensington Road where Benjamin crashed.
Thomas then backed up, she said, his firearm drawn, when Benjamin “appeared to strike the officer.”
The two began grappling on the ground, where it appeared to Houpt that Benjamin — who was taller, heavier and 30 years younger than Thomas — was about to overcome the officer.
“My assumption was the man was about to take over (Thomas’) weapon,” Houpt said.
Her husband, Brian Houpt, said that he, too, was concerned that Benjamin was going to overtake the officer.
“In my opinion he had no choice but to use his weapon,” he said.
Another witness, Steven Zuschin, said Benjamin was trying to strike the officer. The deadly shot was fired as the officer fell backwards, he said.
“(Benjamin) was aggressive from the second he got out of that car,” Zuschin said.
James said none of the witnesses, who, like Thomas, are white, believed the use of deadly force was unjustified. Benjamin was African-American.
So how did the civil grand jury come to such a different conclusion?
The DeKalb district attorney said his prosecutors could have done a better job informing jurors about use-of-force guidelines. Also, Thomas chose not to testify.
The veteran officer’s attorney, Bob Wilson, said Thomas hoped to make it through his career without ever discharging his weapon.
“It’s been difficult for him emotionally, to live with the fact that he had to take the life of another human being. But he had to do so to protect himself and innocent bystanders,” Wilson said. “No telling what would have happened if he had not done that.”