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New Mexico Cops Are Facing Murder Charges For Shooting a Homeless Man in the Back

The district attorney decided to skip a grand jury and charge two officers with an open count of murder.

Photo via Flickr user Tony Hisgett

James Boyd was lying prostrate when he died.

The 36-year-old with a history of schizophrenia was illegally camping in New Mexico's Sandia Mountains this past March when officers from the Albuquerque Police Department found him. After being asked to leave, Boyd made strange comments about the Department of Defense, and also said, "I'm almost going to kill you right now." Then, around 7:30 PM, he decided to gather his bags and appeared ready to go. That's when one cop lobbed a flashbang at the backpack-wearing traveler and the officers—who said he was wielding knives—opened fire. One bullet struck Boyd in the lower back.


When he was on his stomach, one of the cops called for him to drop his knife. As Boyd lay on the ground, he was hit with several beanbag rounds, and died from the initial gunshot wound soon after at a local hospital.

The three-hour standoff—and its tragic outcome— was documented by one of the officer's helmet cams. The city's police chief called the shooting "justified," but nonetheless put former Detective Keith Sandy and SWAT member Dominique Perez on leave. The video sparked protests and renewed scrutiny of a department that already had a shady reputation—the Department of Justice recently concluded the APD uses excessive force "too frequently"; its officers have carried out at least 27 fatal shootings since 2010. But as the case of Eric Garner in New York showed us, even when there's video evidence, a grand jury won't necessarily indict a cop for a civilian's death.

That's why Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg decided to skip the grand jury part altogether by charging both cops with an open count of murder on Monday. Now a judge will get to pick from three charges: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, or voluntary manslaughter. The case also won't be kept under wraps, like a grand jury proceeding would be. That means all evidence against them will be public record.

"Unlike Ferguson and unlike New York City, we're going to know," Brandenburg told the Associated Press. "The public is going to have that information."

Misconduct by cops has cost Albuquerque taxpayers $23 million in lawyers' fees, according to the Albuquerque Journal—and that's just since the camera program was expanded a few years ago. One of the biggest payouts went to Iraq veteran Kenneth Ellis III, who was shot after holding a gun to his own head.

It's not exactly news that cameras are no panacea for police misconduct, but a dashcam video got one of the officers in the James Boyd case in even deeper trouble for something that he called "locker room banter."

"For that fucking lunatic?" Sandy was apparently recorded saying two hours before Boyd died (the APD has disputed exactly what he can be heard saying). "I'm going to shoot him in the penis with a shotgun here in a second."

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