DETROIT (AP) — A Michigan police officer can't be held liable for fatally shooting a kneeling teenager in the head, a federal appeals court said, slamming the door on a lawsuit tied to a racially charged incident at a bank in the state capital.
The court, in a 2-1 decision this week, said Lansing Officer Brian Rendon is entitled to immunity because his actions were not "objectively unreasonable."
The death of Derrinesha Clay "is a tragedy, a death that, with the benefit of hindsight, may have been avoided," wrote Judge David McKeague at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. "Yet this case also highlights the fact that police work is dangerous work."
In March 2011, three officers responded to a suspected break-in at a Lansing bank. They found Clay hiding and waving scissors, which were wrested from her, but the black 17-year-old also drew a steak knife.
Rendon, who is white, shot Clay in the stomach while she was on her knees. The officer followed in "quick succession" with a shot to her head, the court said.
U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell had ruled that Rendon wasn't immune to a lawsuit over excessive force. He said there was evidence that Clay wasn't resisting after being shot in the stomach.
But the appeals court reversed Bell's decision, saying a key legal issue was whether Rendon reasonably believed Clay still was a threat.
In dissent, appeals Judge Jane Stranch would have affirmed Bell's ruling. She said a jury should sort through conflicting reports from other officers about whether Clay was an immediate threat.
"Derrinesha Clay is not alive to contest the timing of the two shots Officer Rendon fired into her body," Stranch said.
In 2011, Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III declined to file charges and said the shooting appeared to be justified. Lansing Police Chief Mike Yankowski said Clay's death was an "unfortunate tragedy for everyone."
Black pastors at the time questioned the police version of events, and yard signs of protest were displayed in a neighborhood, the Lansing State Journal reported.
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