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No Charges Filed Against Trooper In Arizona Shooting Death Of Dion Johnson

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.

“Under our law in our state, if there is any evidence to support a self-defense claim, then we as prosecutors are required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person did not act in self-defense,” Adel said in an announcement to the press Monday. “Trooper Cervantes, reasonably fearing for his life shot and killed Mr. Johnson. And while this is a tragic outcome, criminal charges against the trooper are not warranted.” 

Adel said her decision was based on eyewitness and photographic evidence. She said community members participated in the review of the case.

Family and supporters say the Maricopa County Attorney's Office showed unfair favoritism to law enforcement in the decision. Johnson’s mother, Erma Johnson spoke at a news conference following the announcement.

“The system fails me. It fails me. It fails my son. It fails us Black people. It fails to protect and serve,” Erma Johnson said.

State Rep. Reginald Bolding released a statement critical of what he saw as Cervantes’ disregard for Johnson’s life.

Bolding wrote, “It is odd to me that Allister Adel appears to have limited her determination of wrongdoing to the shooting itself, which had no video evidence, and not the critical last minutes of Dion Johnson's life.”

He went on to say Johnson could have — and should have — survived the encounter. Bolding has promised to seek legislative changes to end police violence.

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.

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.

Katherine Davis-Young is a senior field correspondent reporting on a variety of issues, including public health and climate change.