PHOENIX - Prosecutors have declined to criminally charge an Arizona state trooper in the fatal shooting of a Black man during a roadside struggle nearly four months ago that inspired protests in Phoenix.
Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel said charges weren’t warranted against Trooper George Cervantes in the May 25 fatal shooting of 28-year-old Dion Johnson along the Loop 101 freeway. Adel said Cervantes feared for his life during the struggle with Johnson.
Thousands of demonstrators took the street in downtown Phoenix during June to protest the deaths of Johnson and George Floyd, who died on the same day as Johnson in Minneapolis police custody.
Cervantes told investigators a partially handcuffed Johnson had pulled part of the officer’s body into Johnson’s car through an open door. The officer said he feared he would lose control of his gun if Johnson continued to overpower him, so he shot Johnson in the torso, leading to his death.
Police reports say Johnson’s encounter with Cervantes started when the trooper saw Johnson passed out in a car that smelled of alcohol and had a handgun sitting on the seat. A toxicology report shows Johnson had methamphetamine, the synthetic opioid fentanyl and marijuana in his system.
Dion Johnson (file)
The officer took the gun and secured it on his motorcycle and then returned to the car to arrest Johnson, who was by then seen moving around. Cervantes cuffed one of Johnson’s hands, marking the beginning of the struggle, according to the reports.
The officer said he feared that Johnson was going to push him into a lane of traffic with his legs, so he pulled out his gun and told him to stop resisting arrest or he would be shot.
Cervantes said he started to re-holster his gun when he felt the threat had lessened, but then Johnson grabbed his arm that was holding the officer’s gun.
The officer told investigators that Johnson leaned back, pulled on the trooper and used his legs as leverage to pull part of the officer’s body into the vehicle through an open door.
The trooper also said he feared Johnson would get hold of his gun if he were further drawn into the car, so he shot Johnson.
Earlier in his 15-year career at the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Cervantes received an 80-hour suspension in 2013 for a series of violations of policy. The violations included shooting his girlfriend’s puppy with a stun gun in an attempt to discipline the pet and using a state vehicle to leave a note on the car of his former girlfriend, who had been at odds with him and found the anonymous note to be worrisome.
Following the Maricopa County Attorney's news conference, Johnson's family responded to the decision not to charge Cervantes:
“If you only have one side of the story, let a jury decide what happened," said Jocquese Blackwell, the Johnson family attorney.
His family and their attorney felt like they were robbed of justice.
Erma Johnson, Johnson’s mother said in response to the decision, “In this world and this society now, I’m scared to come in contact with any law enforcement officers becuase it’s too much going on. We’re dying out here and it doesn’t have to be like this.”
A small group of protestors made its way down Washington Street the night of Sept. 21.
Johnson’s mother promised that the family's quest for justice wasn’t over, saying, “I didn’t think that I would be here, be the mother standing here fighting for justice for my son because a cop killed my son. I never thought in a million years this would happen to me.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.