Chesterfield's top prosecutor explains her reasoning for justifying deadly police shooting of Charles Byers

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Posted at 7:20 PM, Apr 12, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-12 19:20:33-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Just months after she was sworn in, Chesterfield's top prosecutor Erin Barr already had a big decision to make-- whether to charge the officer who shot and killed Charles Byers on July 8, 2023.

Byers was a mentally ill man with schizoaffective disorder and was under an active temporary detention order, requiring him to be treated in a psychiatric facility, at the time of his death.

She decided not to prosecute, and for the first time publicly, is explaining her reasoning for why she determined the officers acted properly.

"When applying the law to the facts, I found that at the time of the use of force in this case, the Officers had sound reason to believe that Mr. Byers posed an imminent threat of serious bodily harm to both themselves as well as to others in the area," Barr said.

Barr explained the timeline of events that led to her decision in an official letter to the Chesterfield Police Department, dated March 15.

In her letter, she cited the 911 call in which a neighbor initially reported that Byers damaged her window and tried breaking into her home on Wycliff Court, less than a mile from where Byers lived.

In that same call, which CBS 6 heard, the neighbor also reported that Byers thought it was his family's house and asked her for water.

Another neighbor reported to 911 on that same call that Byers knocked on and tried to open his door.

According to Barr's letter, the neighbors told police following the shooting that Byers "could not hold his posture or stand still" or walk in a straight line. They also said he had a "blank expression" and appeared to be "messed up on something."

Byers then went into a third resident's garage and remained inside it for about ten minutes, according to Barr's letter. The owner of that house thought that Byers could have been a family friend.

Byers then walked out of the garage with a hatchet. According to body camera video viewed by CBS 6, the man whose garage Byers took a hatchet from was actively mowing his lawn close to Byers when police arrived on the scene.

When the first officer arrived, she saw Byers standing on a lawn holding a hatchet. The officer immediately drew her gun and told Byers to drop the hatchet.

Barr's letter stated that Byers began walking toward that officer, but according to the body camera video viewed by CBS 6, Byers did not appear to walk in her direction.

When a second officer arrived just a moment later, the video showed that Byers walked from the yard into the street, passing the second officer in doing so.

Barr's letter stated that he was 5-6 feet away from the second officer at that point.

From that point forward, the video showed Byers backing away from both officers the entire time. Officers had their guns pointed at Byers and walked toward him down the street. The officers continuously gave commands for Byers to put down the hatchet, but he did not comply.

The video showed that Byers kept the hatchet down by his side throughout nearly the entire 45-second interaction. Byers never raised the hatchet past his waist, according to the video.

Barr's letter described the hatchet as "rigid in his hand" and, at one point, at a "45-degree angle."

As Byers continued backing away, the first officer switched to a taser to "utilize a lower level of force," according to Barr's letter. That officer deployed the taser from about 13 feet away, but it had no effect on Byers.

Barr's letter stated that the second officer did not have a taser. Barr said even if he did, that officer could not have also switched to a taser because of the "short distance between them" and because he would place both officers at risk of lethal injury.

According to the video, about nine seconds after the taser was deployed, and as Byers continued walking backward, he turned his head sideways. That's when the second officer fired five gunshots at Byers. Barr's letter stated the reason Byers looked away was unknown.

After getting shot at five times, the video showed Byers turn around and run away, and then the same officer fired two more shots at his back. Byers dropped to the ground and was pronounced dead.

"[The officer] fired a succession of seven shots. Mr. Byers remained upright and moving for a period of time after being struck. In the moment, it would have appeared that he remained a lethal threat and explain the number of shots fired," Barr's letter stated.

Five of the seven total gunshots hit Byers.

Barr's letter said a person with an edged weapon is a lethal threat because they can attack more quickly than an officer can engage in a decision-making process and fire his weapon.

“Despite Mr. Byers backing away from the Officers, he was still within a distance to pose an imminent threat of serious bodily harm. Given the risk he posed toward them being armed with the hatchet, the Officers could not approach Mr. Byers to detain him. Given the risk he posed toward the community being armed with a hatchet, having attempted to break-in to multiple houses, and refusing to comply with the Officer’s direction, the Officers could not allow Mr. Byers to walk away toward residences and an intersection," Barr said.

The video did not appear to show neighbors immediately in the direction that Byers was walking. Police said there were neighbors gathered outside behind the officers in the opposite direction Byers walked. They also said it's possible neighbors could've been outside in areas outside their viewpoint at the time.

When CBS 6 asked whether Barr considered sending the case to a grand jury, Barr said it would've been unethical for her to pursue the case any further because there was no probable cause for a criminal charge.

Barr said she used guidance from a 2020 state law governing the proper use of deadly force by law enforcement.

The statute says officers shall not use deadly force against a person unless:

  • The law-enforcement officer reasonably believes that deadly force is immediately necessary to protect the law-enforcement officer or another person, other than the subject of the use of deadly force, from the threat of serious bodily injury or death;
  • If feasible, the law-enforcement officer has provided a warning to the subject of the deadly force that he will use deadly force;
  • The law-enforcement officer's actions are reasonable, given the totality of the circumstances; and
  • All other options have been exhausted or do not reasonably lend themselves to the circumstances.

The video showed that officers did not give a verbal warning to Byers that they would use deadly force. A county attorney told CBS 6 that in hindsight, the officers could have given a warning, but she did not believe it would have changed the outcome. Chesterfield Police training instructors told CBS 6 that the officers did exhaust all other de-escalation strategies.

Barr said in making her decision, she relied upon the other portion of that code which states two factors should be considered: 1) the reasonableness of the officer's belief and actions and 2) the totality of the circumstances including the amount of time the officer had to make a decision, whether the subject had a deadly weapon and whether he complied with the officer's orders, whether the officer engaged in de-escalation tactics including taking cover, waiting for backup, trying to calm the subject and using non-deadly force, whether the conduct of the officer escalated the confrontation and the seriousness of the suspected crime.

According to the video, the officers did not appear to take cover. Chesterfield Police training instructors told CBS 6 that backup was already on the way at the time of the shooting.

"I was placed in this position by the voters in Chesterfield to make prosecutorial decisions, and I intend to fulfill that duty with professionalism, integrity, and an examination of the facts and the law, as I have done in this case," Barr said in a statement to CBS 6.

Barr and Chesterfield Police have declined on-camera interviews.

Paul Curley, the attorney for the Byers family has disputed statements that Byers was a threat to the officers at the time. Curley cited the fact that he was walking away from them and did not "advance" on the officers, contrary to the narrative initially released by Chesterfield Police that he did advance on them.

The Byers family said they want the body camera video to be released to the public for transparency purposes, but police said it's their policy to not release body camera videos.

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