Testimony began Wednesday in a three-day immunity hearing for two members of a multi-agency fugitive task force charged with murder in a 2016 shootout involving a wanted man.
Attorneys for Eric Heinze and Kristopher Hutchens say the two were acting within the scope of their federal duties and in self-defense when they fatally shot Jamarion Robinson nearly seven years ago while trying to arrest him at his girlfriend’s East Point apartment.
Prosecutors allege they used excessive force and never had a warrant to enter the home in the first place.
A Fulton County grand jury indicted the officers on murder and other charges in October 2021, but the case was moved to federal court last year since they were serving on the U.S. Marshals Service fugitive task force at the time.
Decades ago, Congress passed a law that allows people charged criminally in a state court to move the case to U.S. District Court if they were acting in their official federal duties or acting under the color of federal office when they committed the alleged offense. The case is then presided over by a federal judge with jurors selected from within the U.S. District Court’s jurisdiction. In October, Heinze’s and Hutchens’ attorneys successfully got their clients’ cases transferred from Fulton Superior Court to the federal courthouse a few blocks away.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Victoria Calvert denied the state’s request to temporarily return to the case to Fulton County so prosecutors could present a new indictment to a grand jury. Prosecutors planned to drop previous charges of making false statements, but add conspiracy charges and two more murder counts, court filings show.
Robinson, 26, was shot nearly five dozen times after firing at officers inside the apartment on Aug. 5, 2016, authorities said. The task force did not have a warrant for the home, but confirmed Robinson was inside after watching the apartment and sending in a maintenance man from the complex to see if he was there.
Atlanta police investigator Stephen O’Hare, who worked as a task force officer at the time, said he didn’t think they needed a warrant for the apartment since Robinson had been staying there at least four days.
“He had been there several nights and really had nowhere else to go,” he said from the stand.
Authorities began searching for Robinson after he poured gasoline outside his mother’s bedroom door on July 11, 2016, and weeks later aimed a gun at two Atlanta police officers responding to a call about a suspicious person at an apartment complex, records show. Robinson never ignited the gasoline, but left his mother’s home before police arrived, prompting the weekslong search that ended in his death.
“He was unstable. He was violent and they were anxious to take him into custody before anyone was injured,” Heinze’s attorney, Lance LoRusso, told the judge previously. “They were under attack and they fired their weapons to prevent the loss of their lives and the lives of their federal officers.”
A U.S. Marshals shooting review board later determined the officers’ use of force was authorized, and the Justice Department declined to open an investigation into the matter.
At the time, Heinze was the Assistant Chief Inspector for the U.S. Marshals Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force. Hutchens, a Clayton County police officer, was working as a task force officer during the incident.
Both men are still employed and have since been promoted by their respective agencies, prosecutor Natalie Adams said.
“The evidence shows they continued shooting even after Mr. Robinson was unconscious,” Adams said, noting his body was “riddled with 76 bullet wounds.”
O’Hare, the defense’s first witness, testified that officers were concerned Robinson’s behavior may escalate if he wasn’t captured quickly. He said the task force members announced themselves before smashing the door open. That’s when they spotted Robinson at the top of his girlfriend’s stairs aiming a .380-caliber Hi-Point pistol in their direction, authorities said.
Hutchens’ attorney, Don Samuel, said the task force officers fired in self-defense. He also noted that at least two rounds appeared to have been fired from Robinson’s gun at the top of the stairs.
“It was a chaotic scene. It was a frightening scene for everybody involved,” Samuel said, noting his client had been involved in about 2,500 fugitive arrests during his time on the task force.
“You can’t point a gun at a police officer who’s trying to arrest you,” he said. “You just can’t do that.”
Samuel said he believed the officers acted reasonably since they were dealing with someone who posed a danger to them. And as federal officers operating in their official capacity, attorneys for both Heinze and Hutchens contend they are not subject to state prosecution.
If the case against the two men goes forward, a federal trial would be held in October. The pair are facing mandatory life sentences and their attorneys said both officers are eager to put this behind them after nearly seven years.
Daniel Doyle, another task force member who opened fire that day, died of cancer in March 2020 and was never charged.
Former Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard previously said the shooting investigation was hamstrung by the refusal of officers to cooperate and the absence of body camera footage.
His successor, Fani Willis, promised swifter action in use-of-force cases and has obtained indictments against a number of current and former police officers since taking office in 2021.
Prosecutors contend Robinson was shot even after he was rendered unresponsive by dozens of high-power rounds and a flash bang.
Cellphone video filmed by a neighbor inside his apartment captured a portion of the shooting, which included both automatic and semi-automatic gunfire. In that video, three automatic rounds can be heard after a flashbang was deployed inside the home, an expert testified.
Officers could also be heard yelling for Robinson to drop the gun.
The GBI, which investigated the shooting, said a handgun and multiple spent rounds “believed to be associated with Robinson” were recovered from the scene. He had been shot 59 times, with 17 of those bullets exiting his body, said his mother, Monteria Robinson.
Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
She sat in the front row of the federal courtroom on Tuesday and Wednesday, along with relatives and more than a dozen supporters.
Testimony is set to resume Thursday morning at 9 a.m.
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