ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – A New Mexico judge ruled Tuesday that two New Mexico police officers must stand trial on murder charges in the on-duty shooting of a homeless man that sparked angry protests in Albuquerque and helped lead police to overhaul use of force policies.
Pro Tem Judge Neil Candelaria said after a nearly two-week preliminary hearing that there was probable cause for the murder case against Officer Dominique Perez and former Detective Keith Sandy to go to trial.
Prosecutors filed the charges against the two officers in the killing of 38-year-old James Boyd, who authorities say had schizophrenia. He was shot during an hours-long standoff in 2014 in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, where police accused him of camping illegally. He died at a hospital after his arm was amputated.
Video of the shooting showed Boyd appearing to surrender before he was shot.
Seven police officers around the country have faced murder charges for on-duty incidents since 2010. One was convicted of manslaughter and assault after a second-degree murder count was dropped. The rest are still in court proceedings.
In the New Mexico ruling, the judge threw out an involuntary manslaughter option.
Asked by defense lawyer Sam Bregman what standard he used to justify probable cause, the judge said "what a reasonable police officer in that situation would do."
Defense lawyers did not immediately comment after the ruling by Candelaria.
Special Prosecutor Randi McGinn said during the hearing that Perez and Sandy came to the scene with the intent of attacking Boyd during a "paramilitary response." They created the danger, she said.
"He was shot in the back and in the side," McGinn said during her closing argument. "That shows that he was not a threat when they shot him."
Defense lawyers countered that Boyd had threatened officers with two knives and Perez and Sandy had no choice about opening fire. The lawyers said the officers were following their training and protecting their colleagues when they shot Boyd.
"It should be clear to everyone now that James Boyd was not executed for being a homeless camper," defense attorney David Roman, who represents Perez, said during his closing argument.
During the hearing, Bregman, who represents Sandy, questioned K-9 officer Scott Weimerskirch from a 4-foot platform to illustrate whether Boyd being on higher ground was a threat to officers. Weimerskirch was at the scene when Boyd was shot.
Holding fake knives, Bregman asked if Boyd's position and his actions put officers in danger. Weimerskirch answered yes.
"I was in a helpless position ... trying to control my dog," Weimerskirch said, crediting Sandy and Perez for saving his life.
Weimerskirch also testified that when he approached Boyd, he ducked because he knew Sandy and Perez would fire at the camper.
Sgt. James Fox said officers who arrived at the scene knew basic information about Boyd when they received reports about him camping illegally. But it was unclear from the testimony if Perez and Sandy also knew the details of Boyd's mental illness.
The video footage drew national attention to the Albuquerque Police Department, which was being investigated at the time by the U.S. Justice Department over officers' use of force.
The department was under scrutiny for more than 40 police shootings since 2010.
Shortly after the killing of Boyd last year, Justice Department officials released a harsh report faulting Albuquerque police for excessive force, especially against suspects suffering for mental illness.
The city and the Justice Department later entered an agreement to overhaul policies involving use of force and to appoint a federal monitor to oversee reforms.
Police critics and authorities had been closely watching the preliminary hearing because it's the only time Albuquerque police officers have faced charges in any of the shootings since 2010.
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