Witness: Cop had ‘upper hand’ before killing Black motorist

A Michigan police officer who killed a Black motorist “always had the upper hand” during a physical struggle that preceded the shooting, a witness testified Thursday.

A judge in Grand Rapids, Michigan, began hearing evidence to determine if Christopher Schurr will stand trial for second-degree murder in the April death of Patrick Lyoya. The legal standard at this stage is probable cause, a low threshold.

Lyoya, a 26-year-old native of Congo, was on the ground when he was shot in the back of the head following a traffic stop, short foot chase and intense scuffle in a residential neighborhood. The incident was recorded on police and bystander video.

Schurr’s lawyers argue that he acted in self-defense, though he was fired by the police department.

Wayne Butler was getting out of a morning shower when he noticed police lights flashing on his street. He said he was instantly concerned when he saw Lyoya, the driver, outside of the car.

“I could tell Patrick was confused. The confusion is, first of all, you shouldn’t have been out of the car as an African-American male,” said Butler, 41, who is Black. “Don’t you know he’s got a gun, he’s got a Taser, he could kill you? Clearly he didn’t know what the rules in America are about traffic stops.”

Butler said Lyoya began running “like he was disoriented playing tag on two front lawns” before Schurr quickly caught him and the two men began a “wrestling match.”

“The officer is always winning, 60-40. He always had the lead; it wasn’t by much,” Butler said. “You could tell he was getting worn out, but he always had the upper hand.”

Butler said he stopped watching in order to retrieve his phone to record video. As a result, he didn’t see the shooting.

During cross-examination, Butler acknowledged telling investigators last spring that Schurr did nothing wrong. But after watching video of the killing, he said Lyoya’s “execution-style” death changed his opinion.

Video shows Schurr, who is white, telling Lyoya that he stopped his car because the license plate didn’t match the vehicle. Roughly a minute later, Lyoya began to run after he was asked to produce a driver’s license.

Schurr fired the fatal shot while demanding that Lyoya, who was on the ground, let go of the officer’s Taser. The device discharges small amounts of electricity to incapacitate someone.

Defense lawyers summoned a forensic video analyst, Robert McFarlane, who was hired to take all the video created at the scene and closely examine it.

He said Schurr made 20 commands but Lyoya didn’t comply. McFarlane was able to zoom in on how the men struggled over control of the Taser and how frequently Lyoya’s hands were on it.

Bryan Chiles, an engineer at Taser developer Axon, inspected the device, which had been discharged by Schurr but apparently didn’t strike anyone. He said it still could have been used, especially when pressed against someone in “drive stun” mode.

Grand Rapids police Sgt. Nicholas Calati said the Taser was near Lyoya’s hands when officers arrived and found the body.

A state police investigator said there were arrest warrants out for Lyoya at the time of his death, one for drunken driving and another for domestic assault. Schurr’s attorney, Matt Borgula, introduced evidence that fake ID cards were found in the car.

“Certainly the motive of why he was fleeing comes into play,” Borgula told the judge.

For the first time, Lyoya’s friend who was the passenger in the car spoke publicly in court. Aime Tuyishme had recorded the shooting on his phone.

Tuyishme said he and Lyoya had been drinking with friends the previous night and stopped at a store for beer before the encounter with Schurr. He believed Lyoya pulled over because of a strange car noise, not a police stop.

“I really don’t want to watch this video over and over,” Tuyishme said during questions by the defense.

He said he didn’t know Lyoya’s last name but described him as “like a brother.”

The hearing will resume Friday. Grand Rapids, which has a population of about 200,000, is 160 miles (260 kilometers) west of Detroit.

Lyoya’s killing by an officer came after numerous others in recent years involving Black people, including George Floyd, whose death in Minneapolis sparked a national reckoning on race; Daunte Wright, who was shot during a traffic stop in suburban Minneapolis; Andre Hill, who was killed in Columbus, Ohio; and Andrew Brown Jr., who was killed in North Carolina.

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