After reviewing anew the death of Marcus-David Peters, who in 2018 was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer while in a mental health crisis, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette W. McEachin reached the same conclusion as her predecessor: that the shooting was justified.
Peters, a 24-year-old high school teacher and recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, was naked and unarmed during the encounter that occurred around 5:30 p.m., on May 14, 2018 along Interstate 95/64. Officer Michael Nyantakyi shot Peters at least twice after a Taser did not subdue him as he was charging the officer.
“The officer’s ultimate decision to use lethal force was a reasonable response to the imminent danger presented to himself and the public by Mr. Peters’ continued violent behavior due to his mental deterioration,” McEachin wrote in her 10-page review released Friday, two years and three months after former Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring’s initial report found the same.
Peters’ family and local activists have called for re-opening the case saying he “needed help, not death,” and it became a demand of demonstrators who began protesting police brutality nearly six months ago following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. Peters’ name has become a symbol of the city’s ongoing civil unrest as the circle around the graffiti-covered monument of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was renamed by protesters in his honor.
McEachin said, in an email, that her review was prompted by the family’s request, and began in June.
On Twitter, Peters’ sister Princess Blanding, who operates an account for the movement she created after Peters’ death called Justice and Reformation for MDP, said McEachin called her earlier Friday to break the news. Blanding expressed her frustration with the finding and the system that enabled it.
“It’s NOT over,” Blanding said on Twitter. “I’m not going nowhere.”
In her report, McEachin said its purpose was to review the evidence, law and conclusions contained in the 17-page use-of-force investigation and analysis released by Herring in August 2018. Both reports provide similar accounts of the incident.
McEachin’s report differs from Herring’s in that it includes analysis from the police department’s Taser instructor, which found that the Taser deployed before Nyantakyi shot Peters did, in fact, work. It was previously reported that the Taser didn’t work because only one prong, of two, connected with Peters’ skin. It turns out both did connect, but not at the same time, limiting its effectiveness to two seconds rather than the expected five, according to the review.
McEachin also had the Virginia Department of Forensic Science examine the officer’s body-worn camera footage. It found that the footage was not altered or edited, a question raised by Peters’ family, according to the report.
The report also includes analysis from Kelly Furgurson, Crisis Intervention Training, coordinator at Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, who “opined that the officer used CIT appropriately in that he immediately recognized that Mr. Peters was ‘mentally unstable.’”
McEachin’s report noted the officer had undergone the weeklong CIT training in 2011, seven years before the shooting.
“CIT officers are trained that communication and de-escalation of a volatile situation requires that the officer first establish a safe position for himself and the mentally-ill individual,” McEachin summarized Furgurson’s analysis. “In the 76 seconds that elapsed between the time that Mr. Peters climbed out of his car window and the time that he was shot, there was no time when both the officer and Mr. Peters were in a safe position to make communication and de-escalation possible.”
According to Herring’s report, Peters’ deteriorating mental health seemed to start one to two weeks prior to his death, and that his family had expressed concerns about it.
Both reports mention Peters had smoked marijuana earlier that afternoon, but McEachin’s report doesn’t mention the Ritalin a toxicology report found in Peters’ system that had been in Herring’s report.
The incident on May 14, 2019, began around 5:22 p.m. when Peters arrived at the Jefferson Hotel, where he held a part-time job. After removing his shirt in the hotel lobby, he got into “a brief but tense exchange with another employee.”
Later he’s seen on surveillance footage, completely naked, running from the hotel and hopping into his car, in which he rear-ended three others before veering off the interstate entrance ramp near Belvidere Street. The car came to rest in a tree-lined area in the center of the ramp.
Nyantakyi, who is never mentioned by name in McEachin’s report and continues to work for the department, saw the crashes and pursued Peters.
“With his service weapon drawn, he commanded the driver, later identified as Mr. Peters, to remain inside of the vehicle,” McEachin said in the report. “Mr. Peters can be seen and heard yelling, flailing his arms around, and moving his head fervently from side to side. He was so active that his movements caused the vehicle to rock from side to side. In his interview, the officer explained that he feared that Mr. Peters might be reaching for a weapon because he could see him reaching to the passenger side of the cabin. The officer radioed the Department of Emergency Communications (DEC) that the subject inside of the vehicle appeared to be mentally unstable.”
In footage from Nyantakyi’s body-worn camera, Peters was still naked when he exited his car. He climbed, feet first, out of the driver’s-side window — the door was operable, the report found — and was screaming nonsensically as he ran to the highway. He was struck by a passing car, causing him to fall into one of the lanes, where he rolled around and made “snow angels,” the reports said and footage showed.
“The officer further explained that he holstered his firearm and drew his yellow Taser as he moved closer to observe and check on Mr. Peters,” the report said. “Suddenly, Mr. Peters stood and faced the officer who was standing some feet away. He appeared agitated and yelled at the officer to ‘Back the [expletive] up.’ The officer backed up as Mr. Peters advanced. He explained to us that he was attempting to maintain distance between them and to stall in hopes that other units would arrive.
“Mr. Peters then yelled ‘Put that Taser down or I’ll kill you.’ The officer warned that he would deploy the Taser, but Mr. Peters continued to advance on the officer while yelling, ‘Die [expletive].’ The officer deployed his Taser striking Peters with one prong, but it had no effect.”
In his interview with prosecutors, Nyantakyi acknowledged Peters was unarmed, but “indicated that by this point, it was ‘an all-out fight between the two’ of them to gain control over his firearm. The officer further explained that he was wary of engaging hand to hand with Mr. Peters because of his erratic behavior, his unresponsiveness to pain, and fear that Mr. Peters might land on top of him,” the report said.
Nyantakyi shot Peters at least twice, the report said.
McEachin’s report said it is unclear whether Peters actually made contact before shots were fired, though several witnesses confirmed there was physical contact.
Mera Carle, who has served as a medic to those injured in the ongoing protests, said she reached out to McEachin to express frustration with her findings.
“Her transcription of the body cam footage from the time surrounding Marcus’ death was not at all what our city is asking for,” Carle said in an email. “It was callous to subject our community, and most importantly Marcus’ family, to her written account that detailed almost only what we’ve all seen on video. What Richmond wanted was the thoughtful reconsideration that having a mental health crisis does not warrant a death sentence. That is where Colette failed us again.”
On Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam signed similar House and Senate bills that establish a statewide mental health awareness response system, also known as the Marcus Alert, named for Peters. The measure limits law enforcement response to individuals in crisis.