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Trader Joe's suspect should be held accountable for accidental police shooting of bystander

When 28-year old Gene Evin Atkins elected to escalate an ongoing ...

Posted: Jul 27, 2018 7:55 AM
Updated: Jul 27, 2018 7:55 AM

When 28-year old Gene Evin Atkins elected to escalate an ongoing feud with his 76-year-old grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Madison, by shooting her several times in her South Los Angeles home, he set into motion a tragic series of events that wounded flesh and seared souls. A manager at a Trader Joe's was killed, shot by a bullet fired by a police officer responding to the crime. One of the questions the incident raises is who should be held responsible for her death.

Atkins' grandmother, who had raised him since the tender age of 7, is reportedly still in critical condition. After Atkins attempted to murder her for complaining he had left too many televisions on in her home, he subsequently wounded and kidnapped his girlfriend, which precipitated a high-speed police pursuit through Los Angeles streets last Saturday afternoon.

Atkins fired at police from his grandmother's stolen Toyota Camry, crashing it first into a utility pole, and then dashing inside the Trader Joe's. Armed with a semi-automatic pistol, the panicked shooter startled unsuspecting shoppers, as he sought refuge inside the crowded retail store.

A tense three-hour standoff ensued, ending when Atkins gave himself up to police, who had responded in force, surrounding the building, evacuating nearby businesses, and establishing communications with the gunman, whom they persuaded to handcuff himself and exit the store. He has subsequently been charged with 31 felonies and is being held on $2 million bail.

It was later determined that 27-year-old store manager Melyda Corado was fatally struck and killed by a pursuing police officer's bullet. LA Police Chief Michel R. Moore revealed the devastating news at a somber press conference and critics immediately began questioning the actions of the officers. The LAPD also released dashcam and bodycam video related to the heart-pounding pursuit and exchange of gunfire.

After reviewing all available information related to the pursuit and attempted interdiction of Atkins, I believe the police officers involved acted appropriately and within the scope of their duties and responsibilities to keep the public safe, to faithfully protect and serve.

The pursuing police had a right to return fire at a fleeing felon under Tennessee v. Garner, a 1985 Supreme Court ruling that held that under the Fourth Amendment, police may use deadly force to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect only if the officer has a good-faith belief that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical harm to the officers or others. Could anyone really argue that Atkins didn't pose just such a "significant threat"?

And as with any incident involving subjective officer actions, the template of the court's 1989 decision in Graham v. Connor must also be applied: All claims that law enforcement officials have used excessive force -- deadly or not -- in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other "seizure" of a free citizen are properly analyzed under the Fourth Amendment's "objective reasonableness" standard, rather than under a substantive due process standard.

In other words, were the officers' actions "objectively reasonable" to fire at a fleeing felon who had already taken a hostage and was maneuvering to enter a crowded retail space where he could ostensibly take more hostages and harm more innocent people?

In a word: Yes!

And then there are the critics who charge that the officers' reckless actions may have resulted in a potentially preventable death. So, I spoke to former New York homicide prosecutor and current CNN Legal Analyst Paul Callan about the officers' actions under California law. He directed me to the Golden State's Felony-Murder Rule, which essentially asserts that if a suspect's commission of a serious felony caused or provoked the police actions that resulted in an innocent bystander's (or hostage's) death, then the suspect may be charged with felony murder.

And in the instance of Atkins' violent shootout with police and the very real possibility that his depraved actions would realistically foreshadow murder and mayhem once barricaded inside the Trader Joe's, police efforts were logical and justified in attempting to bring him down. The heartbreaking death of Corado would not have occurred if not for the suspect's depraved actions that precipitated a justifiable police response of deadly force.

There is no real satisfaction in citing appropriate case law and crafting these words of exoneration for the officers, because nothing I -- nor anyone else, for that matter -- can say will ever bring back the precious stolen life of Melyda Corado.

And though the officers involved will in all probability face no charges for their actions, their lives have been shattered as well. Police officers are conditioned to protect the defenseless and confront the aggressor. The cops involved will replay their actions on that fateful day over and over again in their minds and will suffer many sleepless nights. We can hope they will get help enduring a recurring nightmare.

Justice will certainly be served if the system sees to it that the perpetrator spends an interminably long period behind bars for the felony murder of Corado.

Let's recognize that there were multiple victims in Saturday's hostage standoff. Some will bear scars that can be seen and will require medical attention to repair. Others, cloaked in blue, who endeavored mightily to take courageous action against a desperate criminal and had the unthinkable happen, will bear indelible scars in their minds.

Prayers for them all.

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