LIMA, Ohio - A white police officer was acquitted Monday in the drug-raid shooting death of an unarmed black woman that set off protests about how police treat minorities in a city where one in four residents is black.
The all-white jury found Sgt. Joseph Chavalia not guilty of misdemeanor charges of negligent homicide and negligent assault. He had faced up to eight months in jail if convicted of both counts.
Chavalia shot 26-year-old Tarika Wilson and her year-old son she was holding, killing her and hitting him in the shoulder and hand, during a Jan. 4 SWAT raid on her house. One of the child’s fingers had to be amputated.
Officers had been looking for Wilson’s boyfriend, a suspected drug dealer.
Chavalia left the courthouse with his family and declined to comment to reporters. Jurors also left the court without commenting, escorted by sheriff’s deputies.
Wilson’s family members stormed out of Allen County Common Pleas Court before visiting Judge Richard Knepper finished dismissing the jury.
Prosecution: Officer was reckless
Outside the courthouse, Wilson’s brother, Ivory Austin said he wasn’t surprised by the verdict.
“Now he (Chavalia) gets to get back on with his life,” he said. “He took my sister’s life.”
He said he was hoping someone from the police department would at least admit a mistake was made.
“I’m not saying he went up there to kill her,” Austin said.
Prosecutors said Chavalia recklessly fired three shots into a bedroom where Wilson and her six children were gathered, even though he could not clearly see her or whether she had a weapon.
“He couldn’t tell Tarika had a child in her arms,” Prosecutor Jeffrey Strausbaugh said during closing arguments Monday.
Chavalia, an officer of 32-years, had testified that he thought his life was in danger when he fired the shots. He said he saw a shadow coming from behind a partially open bedroom door and heard gunshots that he thought were aimed at him. It turned out the gunfire he heard was coming from downstairs, where officers shot two charging pit bulls.
Lima Police Chief Greg Garlock said the jury made the right decision.
“They confirmed what our sense was and our belief was in this,” he said.
Following the shooting, many residents accused the police department of being hostile and abusive toward minorities. One group led a series of marches through the city to protest what they said was mistreatment by police.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson visited the city and demanded that the officer who fired the fatal shots and those who planned the raid be held accountable. Chavalia was the only person charged.
'Low value on black lives'
Local black leaders had criticized the two misdemeanor charges as too lenient.
“It’s another example that there’s very low value on black lives in this community,” said Jason Upthegrove, president of the Lima National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He said he was sickened but not surprised by the verdict and he hopes it won’t reflect poorly on the city.
Arnold Manley, pastor of Pilgrim Rescue Missionary Baptist Church, said he and other black clergy leaders have been trying to work with police and city officials since the shooting, but that he was unsure whether that would continue.
“I’m hurting deeply,” he said. “The message I got out of all this is that it’s OK for police to go and kill in a drug raid,” he said.
Defense attorney Bill Kluge told jurors Monday that Chavalia should not be judged on what wasn’t known until after shooting, including the fact that Wilson did not have a gun or pose a threat.
“It’s Monday morning quarterbacking,” he told jurors. “Put yourself in Joe’s shoes that night.”
The jury’s decision, he said in closing statements, will affect officers across Ohio.
“What kind of world would it be if we didn’t have police officers,” Kluge said. “Joe was doing his duty.”
Wilson’s boyfriend, Anthony Terry, was arrested and pleaded guilty in March to charges of drug trafficking.