• DA clears officer in killing of unarmed man

    Updated:

    DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - An Avondale Estates police officer who shot and killed 20-year-old Jayvis Benjamin will not face criminal charges, despite a civil grand jury having strongly recommended it.

    DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James says he made the decision to clear Officer Lynn Thomas after a thorough review of the case, including two nationally-recognized use of force experts who found the shooting to be justified.

    "We clearly have a scenario here where the officer was defending himself," James told investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer, "There's not one shred of evidence not one witness statement that supports an indictment."

    Benjamin was a college student with no criminal record. Thomas has since returned to his job.

    Thomas began the chase in January 2013 after witnessing Benjamin blow through the intersection of Covington Highway and Kensington Road going roughly 80 to 100 miles per hour in a grey Ford Mustang reported stolen by his cousin.

    Benjamin narrowly missed hitting several cars that were already in the intersection. The traffic light controlling his lane had been red for at least 15 seconds.

    Prosecutors aren't sure Benjamin even knew he was being chased; he was so far ahead of the officer, the Mustang is barely visible in the video.

    By the time the officer caught up, Benjamin had already crashed into a power pole, and spun through a yard into a car parked in a driveway.

    In an exclusive interview with Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, James said part of his decision was based on police dash cam video which captured the beginning of the encounter.

    Jayvis Benjamin was killed on January 18, 2013 at age 20

    He says though Benjamin was unarmed, he was clearly the aggressor.

    "You see Mr. Benjamin actually shoving and pushing and actually fighting with the officer. You see hands flailing forcing his way out of the car," said James.

    The officer is heard on the video repeatedly yelling at Benjamin to remain in the car while the officer waited for backup to arrive.

    Benjamin can then be seen aggressively hitting the officer in a  bear-hug motion before jumping through the window of the car.

    At that point, the officer drew his gun and began retreating across the yard.

    Benjamin is seen waving his arm, pointing, as he pursues the officer and the two move out of the camera's view.

    The two can be heard struggling before the officer fires one shot into Benjamin's chest.

    Eight witnesses and the forensics backup the officer's account of what happened off- camera.

    "They talk about seeing the struggle, and it appearing as if Mr. Benjamin was overpowering the officer," said James, "He knocked him down, still swinging and one of the witnesses says he was actually getting on top of him."

    "No matter what the policeman said he wouldn't stop," said Jean Kingsbury, who lived in the home where Benjamin crashed.
     
    "The guy was coming after him," said Patricia Bowers, who was at her mother's house across the street.  
     
    Bowers' husband Roy Froedge said, "He definitely, somehow, physically put the officer on the ground." 
     
    Neighbor Jennifer Houpt said, "The man did not have a weapon but was about to overcome the officer." 
     
    Passerby Steven Zuschin told police, "The driver of the vehicle went to jump on top of him and then that's when the shot was fired."
     
    The witnesses and physical evidence said the officer was on or near the ground when he fired one fatal shot into Benjamin's chest.

    "If someone's significantly larger than you... they can get the upper hand," said James, "And if you have a weapon on you, then your life is in danger at that point."

    James says despite a civil grand jury "strongly recommending the case move forward for indictment,” he cannot do so legally.

    James says this civil grand jury was the first to review several police shootings under a new mandate he enacted, but he now believes they did not have enough training.

    James has since increased the use of force training those grand jurors receive prior to hearing these kinds of cases, to make sure they better understand the applicable law.

    The Benjamin family told police Jayvis had been acting strangely prior to the incident. He said he had quit his job that morning. He had no criminal record, but had stolen his cousin's car after she told him he couldn't borrow it.
     
    "He believes that this man was having some kind of episode. But that episode endangered everyone around him at that point," said attorney Bob Wilson, who represents Sgt. Thomas.
     
    Wilson says Thomas is relieved to have this three-year ordeal behind him, but is still too distraught to talk about it.
     
    "It's been difficult for him emotionally, to live with the fact that he had to take the life of another human being," said Wilson, "He is sorry that this ever happened at all but he did his job and he did it correctly that day. Make no mistake about it."
     
    Wilson says Thomas had no choice, he retreated and waited to fire his weapon until the last possible second. He was three inches shorter, 40 pounds lighter, and 30 years older than Benjamin, who was winning the fight. 
     
    The Benjamin family has repeatedly called for justice and questioned why the review took more than three years.
     
    "I can't make everyone happy," said James, "The only thing that I can do is seek the truth, and tell the truth."
     
     

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