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Hundreds gathered at funeral for 17-year-old Denver teenager killed by police

  • Laura Hernandez, center, is surrounded by family members at a gravesite service for her 17-year-old daughter, Jessica, in Westminster, Colo. on Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015. Police say Hernandez, 17, was shot Jan. 26 after she drove a stolen car toward an officer in a residential alley in Denver. A passenger in the car disputes the police account and says officers fired first. The shooting sparked protests and demands for an outside prosecutor to investigate what happened. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

    Laura Hernandez, center, is surrounded by family members at a gravesite service for her 17-year-old daughter, Jessica, in Westminster, Colo. on Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015. Police say Hernandez, 17, was shot Jan. 26 after she drove a stolen car toward an officer in a residential alley in Denver. A passenger in the car disputes the police account and says officers fired first. The shooting sparked protests and demands for an outside prosecutor to investigate what happened. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

  • Pallbearers bring the casket of 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez out of the church to a waiting hearse after a funeral Mass in Westminster, Colo. on Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015. Police say Hernandez was shot Jan. 26 after she drove a stolen car toward an officer in a residential alley in Denver. A passenger in the car disputes the police account and says officers fired first. The shooting sparked protests and demands for an outside prosecutor to investigate what happened. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

    Pallbearers bring the casket of 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez out of the church to a waiting hearse after a funeral Mass in Westminster, Colo. on Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015. Police say Hernandez was shot Jan. 26 after she drove a stolen car toward an officer in a residential alley in Denver. A passenger in the car disputes the police account and says officers fired first. The shooting sparked protests and demands for an outside prosecutor to investigate what happened. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Hundreds of friends and relatives gathered Saturday to say goodbye to a 17-year-old girl shot to death by Denver police officers, recalling her big heart and gregarious spirit.

Mourners filled the pews at Saturday's funeral for Jessica Hernandez at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Westminster, in the suburbs north of Denver where she grew up. The Mass was held in Spanish, with English translation for the crowd that spilled beyond the church's doors.

The Rev. Richard Nakvasil remembered Hernandez as a devoted sister to her five siblings and as an empathetic teenager who tried to help the homeless. But he relied mostly on her own words, reading a poem she wrote in which she tried to summarize her complicated nature.

"I seem to be a fighter, someone who doesn't like connections," Nakvasil read, speaking into a microphone so those standing in the back could hear. "It seems I don't want peace. But really I am outgoing ... But really I do want peace. Where there is no violence. I really don't want to fight."

Police have said Hernandez was shot Jan. 26 after she drove a stolen car toward an officer in a residential alley in Denver. Police Chief Robert White has said officers repeatedly told her and four other teens to get out of the car before two officers opened fire. A passenger in the car has disputed the police account, saying Hernandez lost control of the vehicle because she had already been shot and was unconscious.

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The shooting, which remains under investigation, sparked angry protests and came amid a national debate about police use of force fueled by racially charged episodes in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City. Hernandez's family and others have called for an outside prosecutor to investigate what happened.

But even as questions swirled about her death, Hernandez's life was in focus Saturday.

Her friends wore red sweat shirts emblazoned with a picture of her wide smile. Cars in the parking lot had "Justice for Jessie" scrawled on their windshields.

Nakvasil said he understood that for many in the crowd, grief was compounded by questions about Hernandez's death.

Angel Rodriguez, 15, one of Hernandez's former schoolmates, said he couldn't make sense of the shooting, which left his friends puzzled and angry.

"We don't want people to use a very sad incident like this to do something violent," said Cisco Gallardo, program director for Denver's Gang Rescue and Support Project.

The group's staffers were on hand at the request of Hernandez's family, but she was not involved with the organization, which tries to keep young people from joining gangs, he said.

"Any death puts your life in perspective, and for some young people it pulls them down. We don't want kids to blow it out of proportion," Gallardo said.

Many of those in attendance Saturday had never met Hernandez but came to support her family. Hernandez was a lesbian, and her case has garnered additional sympathy among gay rights activists.

"When we see Jessie's face, that's like looking in the mirror," Miriam "Mimi" Madrid Puga said. "It's tragic we'll never see that smile again. But her spirit will live on."