Last week's inquest into the fatal shooting of James Jahar Perez by Portland police officer Jason Sery was largely what the cop's attorney had predicted: "a three-day press conference." Except in this press conference, the most obvious question was neither asked nor answered: Did a drug-addled driver belatedly realize officers were ordering him to take his hand out of his pocket--then get killed for trying to comply?
On the first day, as an overwhelmingly African-American audience watched from within a high-ceilinged fifth-floor Multnomah County courtroom, Sery's partner, Officer Sean Macomber, described a growing fear as seconds passed in what had been the routine stop of a car that looked a bit too fancy for the neighborhood.
Instead of producing his license, Perez rolled up his heavily tinted driver's-side window. Macomber says he pulled open the door to see Perez digging in the center console. The cop threw Perez's left arm into a wristlock and yelled at him to put his hand up. Instead, Perez began digging "feverishly" in the right pocket of his baggy jeans, causing Macomber to shove Perez's head forward to cut off any potential field of fire in the event Perez had a gun.
"I've just started trying to push him down, I can hear Officer Sery to my left somewhat," Macomber testified. "The one thing I could hear him say and directed at me, 'Move back, I'm going to shoot!' ... At that time I--I have an audible memory of hearing shots [as] I'm turning to get out of the line of fire."
Sery, like Macomber, reported seeing Perez reach into his pocket. He recalled Macomber, who had a taser, yelling, "Get your hand out or you're going to be tased."
Sery did not want to wait for a taser. As he saw Perez continue to dig "furiously" in his pocket and glance at the officers, Sery said, "I believed that he was attempting to remove a gun from his pocket.
"I remember starting to scream, 'I'm going to shoot I'm going to shoot. Get your hand out. I'm going to shoot.'
"I remember seeing the top of his hand come out of his pocket," recalled Sery, adding that it appeared clenched, "and that's when I made the decision to shoot."
Rather than ask any awkward questions about whether Perez might have been following orders, District Attorney Mike Schrunk let jurors rely on the testimony of William Lewinski, whom Schrunk had introduced as a leading expert in lethal force.
Forget the movies you've seen, Lewinski said: If you wait until you see the gun, you can't beat your suspect to the draw--therefore, you have to shoot first. "Action beats reaction," he said.
Lewinski, a law-enforcement professor at Minnesota State University-Mankato, has made a career out of that slogan. A website advertising Lewinski's services describes him as part of a "stable" of legal experts that specializes in "the defense of police officers and their agencies [in] all areas of high liability."
But not everyone has been impressed. In September 2001, a Columbus, Ohio, prosecutor faulted Lewinski's "radical views" after a judge acquitted a cop who had killed an unarmed teenager.
"Dr. Lewinski said that if a police officer perceives a threat, he should shoot," the prosecutor told the Columbus Dispatch. "He doesn't consider whether that perception is reasonable."
Lewinski, who was flown to Portland at city expense, testified not only in last week's public inquest, but also in the secret grand-jury proceedings that, prior to the inquest, decided not to levy criminal charges against Sery.
The Perez family attorney, Elden Rosenthal, called it "extremely unfair" that Schrunk let Lewinski testify in both venues without giving the family a chance to counter him with an expert of their own.
"If that is the policy, it is not surprising to me that no police officer has ever been indicted in a shooting incident in Portland," Rosenthal said.
Senior Deputy District Attorney John Bradley denied any effort to rig the inquest to favor any one side.
That's little comfort to many of those who watched the proceedings. Ken Johnson, an African-American resident of Southwest Portland, says he was troubled by how carefully Schrunk "stage managed" last week's public proceedings. "Imagine what the grand jury is like when only the district attorney is in there," he said.