RALEIGH, N.C. – Officials rescinded a murder charge Tuesday against a sheriff's deputy accused of shooting an unarmed teenager who authorities believed had stolen video game consoles, after a grand jury foreman said he had checked the wrong box.
The dismissal came a day after New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David announced the second-degree murder charge against Cpl. Christopher Long, 34.
David said Monday that the sheriff's deputy opened fire as police raided the home of 18-year-old Peyton Strickland, who police believed stole two Sony PlayStation 3 video game consoles from a college student in Wilmington.
The grand jury foreman told a court Tuesday that he checked the wrong box on the indictment form by mistake, according to an order signed Tuesday by Superior Court Judge Ernest Fullwood. The foreman, John K. Hatton, learned about the mistake after other jury members heard media reports, Fullwood's order said.
There was no answer Tuesday night at a listing for a John K. Hatton in Wilmington, the only John Hatton listed in New Hanover County.
A copy of the indictment filed as evidence Tuesday shows a checked box for a "true bill" of indictment crossed out, with a heavy mark made through "not a true bill," followed by what appear to be Hatton's initials and Tuesday's date.
When a grand jury wants a murder indictment, it returns a "true bill." When it decides it does not want to issue an indictment, it returns "not a true bill."
"It was the kind of mistake you and I make in the world of forms," said Long's attorney, Mike McGuinness. "We check the wrong boxes."
The development drew a quick reaction from Strickland's family, which demanded an investigation.
"Yesterday, our son's murderer was going to have to answer for what he did," Don and Kathy Strickland said in a statement. "Today, we just don't know what is going on in Wilmington. We are upset, confused and searching for answers."
David said in a news release Tuesday that everyone in the court system believed the grand jury had indicted Long, a 12-year member of the sheriff's office who was fired last week after the Dec. 1 shooting.
Attorney general's office officials were to meet with David on Tuesday morning to "evaluate all options," David said.
It was not clear whether the error would prevent prosecutors from refiling charges against Long.
McGuinness said there is no need for prosecutors to reconsider the case because the grand jury has already "made a substantial decision" not to charge Long with murder. The only mistake was in improperly reporting that decision, he said.
Authorities had accused Peyton Strickland and two friends of beating a student at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and robbing him of two PlayStation 3s, which have been in high demand since going on sale last month. The friends, Braden Riley and Ryan Mills, have pleaded not guilty.
Police believed they would be at risk when serving the search warrant, and used a police battering ram to break down the door. Long opened fire, hitting the unarmed Cape Fear Community College student in the head and near his right shoulder, an autopsy found.
David said Monday that Long believed he heard gunfire when the battering ram hit the door, a belief his fellow officers, who did not fire, did not share.
"He based his decision on his law enforcement training," McGuinness said Tuesday. "The fact that he shot was not a mistake. It was based on his belief that he was being fired upon."