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Official: Investigations into shootings by police aren't rushed

New Hampshire Sunday News

May 03. 2014 10:28PM

The Attorney General's Office investigation into the fatal shooting of Alex Cora DeJesus, an alleged drug dealer, by Weare police took eight months, the longest such investigation Jeffery Strelzin, chief of homicide at the agency, can recall.

Investigators took the case to a grand jury twice and even secretly recorded conversations between two Weare police officers to try to uncover "potential lies ... and obstruction," according to the attorney general's report.

But in the end, while the Aug. 14, 2013, shooting was not found justified, there were no criminal charges brought against Officer Nicholas Nadeau, who fired the fatal shotgun blast.

Investigators said they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Nadeau had engaged in criminal behavior when he shot DeJesus in the head as the man was trying to escape arrest, fleeing in his car.

"It means that we couldn't say that the officer's action fully complied with the law; (but) we couldn't say that the officer didn't comply to the extent he could be charged with a crime and convicted," Strelzin said.

In a criminal case, he said, prosecutors would have had to "disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt," and they felt they couldn't do that, he said.

The Attorney General's Office last year did find the fatal shooting of Wendy Lawrence of Canterbury - on Sept. 30, 2013, in Manchester - was a justified use of deadly force. State Trooper Chad Lavoie fired at Lawrence, 45, when she drove toward him after he ordered her to stop, hitting her four times.

Police cruisers had surrounded her vehicle after a chase on Interstate 89 and Interstate 93 that ended in a city neighborhood. Lawrence rammed one cruiser and backed into another, according to the attorney general's report on the incident.

Strelzin said in such situations, a motor vehicle is a deadly weapon.

"If you're standing outside and somebody's trying to run you down in a car, I don't think anyone would question that you're in a life-or-death situation."

"That's what's dangerous about law enforcement," he said. "Any situation could suddenly turn into a deadly-force situation if that other person doesn't want to get caught."

Charles Reynolds is a retired New Hampshire police chief who now monitors consent decrees between some of the largest police departments in the country and the U.S. Department of Justice. Such agreements usually require an "absolute prohibition" on police firing at fleeing vehicles, he said.

"Even if you hit the driver, what happens?'' he said. "Now you have a vehicle headed toward you without anybody in control.

"All you do is take this 2,000- or 4,000-pound missile and make it totally unguided."

So instead, he said, "you get out of the way."

But Strelzin said police officers are "damned if they do, and damned if they don't" in such situations.

Toxicological tests found that Lawrence had a blood-alcohol content of .182, and also had marijuana, Oxycodone and Prozac in her bloodstream on the day of the shooting, according to the Attorney General's Office. She had lost her driver's license because of DWI convictions; had prior convictions for drug possession, resisting arrest and welfare fraud; and was a habitual offender.

"If that officer doesn't stop a person in a car who is impaired and driving recklessly, and then that person goes around the corner and runs down a child in the street, what would the public say about that?" Strelzin said.

The attorney general's report on the shooting concluded that Trooper Lavoie "was legally justified in using deadly force against Ms. Lawrence to defend himself from what he reasonably believed was the imminent use of deadly force by her."

A lawyer representing DeJesus' family has said he plans to file a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Weare and the officers involved in the shooting.

And last month, lawyers for the family of 34-year-old Ben Shannon, who died after being shot at his mother's home in Rochester on March 10, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Strafford County sheriff's and probation departments.

The attorney general's investigations into the Rochester shooting, and a non-fatal shooting by a Nashua police officer on March 22, are still ongoing. Strelzin said he expects they will take a few more weeks to complete.

Reynolds said he always tells police chiefs to remember that those killed in officer-involved shootings may have parents, siblings, spouses and children. "That family is dramatically impacted," he said. "We can't lose sight of that fact.

"This is part of our job. It's not part of their job."

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