Fulton DA charges former APD cop with murder in Wendy’s shooting

Fulton DA Paul Howard speaks during a press conference at Fulton County Superior Courthouse on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. Garrett Rolfe, the former Atlanta police officer who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, was charged Wednesday with felony murder and 10 other offenses in his death, the Fulton County District Attorney's Office said. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Fulton DA Paul Howard speaks during a press conference at Fulton County Superior Courthouse on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. Garrett Rolfe, the former Atlanta police officer who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, was charged Wednesday with felony murder and 10 other offenses in his death, the Fulton County District Attorney's Office said. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard took only five days to bring 11 criminal charges, including felony murder, against former Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe for the death of a man who had fallen asleep in a Wendy’s drive-thru line, resisted arrest and attempted to flee.

Many of Rolfe's APD colleagues responded by staying home from work Wednesday night, a reaction to two weeks of turmoil that has sunk morale "tenfold," Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on CNN. Howard has criminally charged eight Atlanta officers during that time, and on Saturday, popular chief Erika Shields submitted her resignation.

In charging Rolfe and Officer Devin Brosnan, Howard said Rayshard Brooks, 27, posed no threat to the safety of the officers who tried to arrest him Friday night.

“He followed every instruction,” said Howard, describing his demeanor as “almost jovial.” “He answered every question.”

Brooks was 18 feet and three inches away from Rolfe when the officer reached for his revolver.

Rolfe not only shot Brooks in the back as he fled, Howard said, but he kicked him after he was down. The other officer on the scene also admitted to standing on Brooks’ body after the shooting, the DA said. Devin Brosnan was charged with aggravated assault and violating his oath of office. It took them two minutes and 12 seconds to render aid to the dying man, said Howard.

Both officers are white, and Brooks was black.

The felony murder charge against Rolfe carries a possible sentence of life without parole or the death penalty, although Howard said recently he would no longer seek death sentences. Rolfe was also charged with one count of criminal damage, three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and seven violations of oath of office.

Howard did not mention that Brooks fought with the officers and took a Taser, said Steve Gaynor, president of the Cobb County Fraternal Order of Police.

Gaynor said he doesn’t believe that Rolfe kicked Brooks, but instead was attempting to straddle him in a maneuver to make sure he was down.

“There’s a lot of things in there (the video) that are not taken into account, and Paul Howard doesn’t go anywhere near them because they would go against his case,” Gaynor said.

But to Brooks’ family and many protesters who have taken to the streets every night since his death, Howard did what needed to be done.

Brooks’ wife, Tomika Miller, said she was grateful for the charges, and attorneys for the family said they were a starting point toward justice.

RELATED: Body camera footage of Rayshard Brooks' death shows calm, then chaos

The charges against Brosnan were a surprise to many. On video depicting the incident, Brosnan, who joined the force less than two years ago, interacted politely with Brooks. Even after Brooks took off with his Taser, Brosnan didn’t reach for his gun.

Yet Brosnan could emerge as a key figure in the case against Rolfe. According to Howard, Brosnan become one of the first police officers “to actually indicate that he is willing to testify against someone in his own department.”

But Brosnan’s lawyer, Don Samuel, said that’s just not true.

“We’ve never agreed to testify,” Samuel said in an interview immediately after Howard’s news conference. “We’ve never agreed to cooperate. We’ve never agreed to plead guilty.”

When told that Rolfe’s attorney had contradicted that claim, Howard told reporters, “I’m not surprised by that. We’ve already interviewed him twice, and I can say what he’s said to us.”

The contradiction and other unusual aspects of the day’s event raised questions about the speed with which Howard completed his investigation. The GBI, which investigates nearly all police shootings in the state, typically takes between 60 and 90 days to complete probes of police shootings, said agency spokeswoman Nelly Miles.

Amid its own investigation late Wednesday, the GBI put out a statement saying it was “not aware of today’s press conference before it was conducted.”

“We were not consulted on the charges filed by the District Attorney,” the statement continued.

Howard said the GBI wasn’t needed on this case, pointing to extensive video evidence and eyewitness testimony that’s typically not so readily available to investigators. The GBI is currently investigating Howard, who faces a tough runoff election against his former chief deputy prosecutor Fani Willis in August, and his use of a nonprofit to funnel at least $140,000 in city of Atlanta funds to supplement his salary.

“He’s clearly not interested in what the GBI has to say,” said Marietta criminal defense attorney Philip Holloway, a former prosecutor. “It will be very interesting if GBI doesn’t come up with the same conclusions that he did. If not, they will become star witnesses for defense.”

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Rayshard Brooks case and Atlanta protests

The decision to prosecute wasn’t a surprise. Just two weeks ago, Howard charged six APD officers with a variety of excessive force violations for the violent arrest of two college students, Messiah Young and Taniyah Pilgrim.

They were in the courtroom Wednesday where Howard announced the charges. Howard’s nephew, NBA star Dwight Howard, was there, too. Brooks’ family and their attorneys flanked Howard during the news conference.

Mayor Bottoms, who denounced the shooting on Saturday and called for Rolfe’s arrest, said she hopes justice will be served “not only for the family of Mr. Brooks, but for the victims and families of the other use-of-force cases waiting to be resolved by the district attorney.”

The speed with which Howard brought charges against eight Atlanta cops has brought criticism from some family members in other use of force cases that have gone unresolved for years.

“Paul Howard has failed my family and has not tried to indict the officers who murdered my son even though he’s been promising me he’s going to take action for nearly four years,” said Monteria Robinson, whose son, Jamarion, was shot at 76 times inside his girlfriend’s East Point apartment in 2016 by a fugitive task force made up of local law enforcement and federal authorities.

But the strongest criticism of Howard’s decision came from within the law enforcement community.

Gaynor said the officers did what they were trained to do and should not have been charged with any crimes.

“They were well within their policy and procedures, what we train them to do,” said Gaynor, who served 30 years in law enforcement. “They did nothing wrong.”

Gaynor disputed several other claims by Howard, including that the officers failed to tell Brooks he was under arrest, based on the body-camera video. Brooks had struggled through a series of field sobriety tests and registered a 0.108 blood alcohol content, about 35% above the legal limit.

“He’s clearly told he’s under arrest,” Gaynor said. “That was a lie.”

When Brooks struggled with the officer and took a Taser, he committed crimes of aggravated assault and forcible robbery, Gaynor said.

Lance LoRusso, Rolfe’s attorney, said his client’s actions were justified under the law.

“A peace officer may use deadly force to arrest a suspected felon when he reasonably believes that the suspect poses an immediate threat of physical violence to the officer or others, to protect himself and others from a life-threatening injury, and to prevent the commission of a forcible felony,” LoRusso said in a statement. “Mr. Brooks violently attacked two officers and disarmed one of them. When Mr. Brooks turned and pointed an object at Officer Rolfe, any officer would have reasonably believed that he intended to disarm, disable, or seriously injure him.”

Samuel called Howard’s decision to press charges “irrational, unethical and obviously based on factors which should have nothing to do with the proper administration of justice.”

“This was not a rush to judgment,” Samuel said. “This was a rush to misjudgment.”

He disputed claims that Brosnan neglected to aid Brooks after he was shot. He tried to stabilize Brooks, he said, administering first aid and CPR.

“Despite a crowd that was yelling, Devin did what he could to save Mr. Brooks,” Samuel said.

“Shame on the district attorney for this abuse of his charging power,” he said. “Shame on the district attorney for not honoring his oath to uphold the Constitution.”

Meanwhile, the streets of the city were missing a large chunk of law enforcement officers.

“There are officers saying they are not going to leave the precinct unless to help another officer,” Vince Champion, Southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Some are walking off and sitting in their personal vehicles.”

Champion said he heard APD was having trouble finding backup Wednesday night.

“Why would you put your officer in Fulton County and take the chance of this happening?” Champion said. “You have an officer who just heard what Paul Howard said, saying he’s going to be in prison for the rest of his life or put to death, and now he’s got to surrender.”

Early Wednesday night, about a dozen cars blocked an intersection near the Wendy’s where Brooks was shot and killed. About 60 or 70 protesters stood on the street, holding Black Lives Matter signs. People had left flowers and memorial signs in and around the torched Wendy’s.

About our reporting

Given the intense public interest in the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe and how this incident may factor into policy changes and decisions on policing, the AJC has committed to providing the fullest, most complete coverage possible. That includes looking at the actions and backgrounds of both Rolfe and Brooks and how those may have shaped their encounter on Friday night. Some limited records are available, and have been published elsewhere, but access to complete records usually available to news reporters has been limited by special COVID-19 access arrangements. We will publish more information as soon as we can evaluate what is accurate and relevant, and give the material context, as is our usual practice.