State’s Attorney Files No Charges Against CPD

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On December 8th, 2009, Champaign County State’s Attorney
Julia Reitz released her report on the death of Kiwane
Carrington, a 15 year-old African-American, at the hands
of Champaign police officers. Almost two months after the
shooting, Reitz determined that while tragic, Kiwane’s
death was accidental and that none of the evidence recovered
by the Illinois State Police’s investigation supported
the filing of criminal charges. However, for some the
report leaves more questions than it answers.
Central to the State’s Attorney’s case is her contention
that officers acted within the law in approaching reports of
a forcible felony in progress with their weapons drawn,
and that when Officer Daniel Norbits did shoot it was accidental
and without intent. In order to bring the charge of
First Degree Murder against Officer Norbits, Illinois criminal
law requires that the prosecution prove that Norbits
fired his gun with the intent to do great bodily harm or to
cause death (720 ILCS 5/9-1). Since all of the available evidence
indicates that Officer Norbits fired his weapon accidentally,
the State’s Attorney concludes that the charge of
First Degree Murder is “unsupportable.”
The State’s Attorney also assessed whether the lesser
charge of Involuntary Manslaughter should be filed. To bring
the charge of Involuntary Manslaughter, Illinois criminal law
requires that the prosecution prove that Officer Norbits performed
the acts that caused Kiwane’s death recklessly (720
ILCS 5/9-3), where recklessness is defined as the conscious
disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that is a gross
deviation from the standard of care which a reasonable person
would exercise in the situation (720 ILCS 5/4-6).
After looking at the available evidence, the State’s
Attorney concluded that the charge of Involuntary
Manslaughter could not be supported for two reasons.
Firstly, she contends that the officers did not act recklessly
in their approach to the scene or by engaging in a physical
struggle with their weapons drawn. According to
Rietz, several factors justified this type of approach
including the fact that officers were approaching reports
of a forcible felony in progress, their fears of an unknown
third party at the scene, their lack of knowledge about
whether the subjects were armed, and the subjects’ lack of
cooperation. In this context, Rietz finds the officers’
actions to be reasonable, not reckless. Secondly, the State’s
Attorney hones in on the legal definition of recklessness
contending that there is no evidence that Officer Norbits
made a conscious decision to disregard a substantial and
unjustifiable risk in this case. Since there is no evidence to
support the claim that Officer Norbits consciously pulled
the trigger, Rietz contends there is no support for the
charge that he consciously disregarded a substantial and
unjustifiable risk and that any reasonable person would
have acted in a similar fashion.
After months of vocal protest, the quiet after the report
dropped is telling. That quiet has less to do with the persuasiveness
of the State’s Attorney’s findings than with the
sense of futility that inevitably overwhelms those that seek
justice in police-related homicides, especially those perpetrated
in black communities across this country. While the
odds seem enormous, it is vital that concerned community
members read the report again and lend a critical eye to
its findings. Such an examination reveals several problems
that require further investigation.
Most critically, the State’s Attorney’s findings are based
entirely on evidence procured by a Multi-Jurisdictional
Investigative Team that was incapable of performing an independent
investigation into Kiwane’s death. The investigative
team was composed of Rantoul, Champaign County, University
of Illinois, City of Urbana, and State Police officers who
work very closely with the Champaign Police Department.
These officers often graduated from the same school, worked
on the same criminal cases, served on the same SWAT teams,
attended the same training seminars, responded to the same
dispatch calls for back-up, and have opportunities to socialize
after hours. These well-established connections hindered
the ability of the Multi-Jurisdictional Investigative Team to
perform an independent investigation and raise important
questions about the credibility of the evidence upon which
the State’s Attorney based her findings.
The credibility of the evidence is further challenged by
the fact that high-ranking officers from the State Police and
Champaign Police Department agreed to permit the lead
police witness in the case, Officer Norbits, a four-day
extension before giving his statement to investigators on
October 13th. According to Deputy Chief Troy Daniels, he
granted the extension after hearing of Officer Norbits’
“memory issues.” Sergeant Mike Atkinson of the State
Police agreed with Deputy Chief Daniels’ argument that
sleep would be beneficial and permitted the extension.
Whether or not this delay impacted Officer Norbits’ testimony,
the fact that police granted the extension brings an
air of contamination to the findings of the investigation.
Even if we accept the evidence procured by the investigation,
the State’s Attorney’s logic on the Involuntary
Manslaughter charge in particular, remains dubious. While
the investigation produced no evidence that Officer Norbits
consciously pulled the trigger, this does not mean that his
actions fail to satisfy the legal definition of recklessness as the
conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that
is a gross deviation from the standard of care which a reasonable
person would exercise in the same situation (720 ILCS
5/4-6). In fact, several factors support the charge of recklessness
or at least muddy the waters enough to warrant the case
being put to a jury trial.
Most obviously, guns do not just discharge without
human intervention. It is well understood in the lawenforcement
community that the Glock 45 which Officer
Norbits uses is particularly
prone to accidental discharge.
The weapon has no
external safety and requires
only 5.5 pounds of trigger
pressure to discharge as
opposed to 9-14 pounds for
equivalent pistols. In addition,
the trigger mechanisms
also have a shorter distance
to travel than equivalent pistols.
These specifications led
the FBI to predict that the
Glock would “inevitably…
lead to an unintentional
shot at the worst moment,”
and by 1999 the pistol had
produced over 120 accidental
discharges by the Washington
D.C. Police Department
For these reasons, officers
are given special training on handling firearms. Officer Norbits
had received extensive firearms training prior to the
shooting of Kiwane and would have been well versed on
appropriate methods of holding and holstering the weapon in
a variety of circumstances. In his interview with investigators,
Officer Norbits admits that “we’re trained to keep our fingers
indexed,” meaning to keep the index finger along the barrel
of the gun and not on the trigger itself. Yet, despite this training,
Officer Norbits proceeded to take the unjustifiable risk of
engaging in a physical struggle
with his gun not only un-holstered
but with his finger
inside the trigger guard dangerously
close to the trigger.
This kind of behavior not only
recklessly endangered the life
of Kiwane Carrington, but also
that of Kiwane’s best friend and
Chief Finney who were within
just a few feet of Officer Norbits
during the struggle.
A lot more could be said
about the report and its many
failings, particularly the State’s
Attorney’s interest in discrediting
Kiwane, his best-friend,
and several of the civilian witnesses.
What matters most
isn’t the personal histories of
the individuals involved but
what really happened on
October 9th and whether the death of an unarmed African-
American teenager was a product of deliberate or reckless
behavior. On that most important of questions, we don’t even
have the luxury of saying that the jury is still out.

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