State, defense rest in police shooting case
The jury is now out in the trial of former Kingsland police officer Zechariah Presley who has been charged in a fatal on-duty shooting. The defense rested midday Thursday, then both sides delivered their closing arguments. The jury began deliberating around 3 p.m. and will continue Friday morning
Presley is on trial for voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and violating his oath of office in the June 2018 death of 33-year-old Tony Green.
That night, Presley followed Green from a gas station, intending to make a traffic stop for a suspended license and speeding. Green ran off the road at a 90-degree turn and he and another man ran away. Green ran back to the car, grabbed something and ran away again. Presley chased Green, then shot him after a brief physical altercation.
The prosecution rested late Wednesday morning. The state has argued that Green was unarmed and running away when Presley shot him, Presley didn’t tell anyone he thought Green had a weapon, Green wasn’t wanted for a violent felony, Green was shot in the back — in addition to the front and sides — and if Presley thought Green was such a threat, then why take after him with a Taser at first?
The defense has argued that Green’s behavior — getting out the car and going back — would be concerning to an officer, Green could have stopped running or left after the men made physical contact and Green faced Presley and raised his arm at Presley before Presley fired.
In the last day of testimony, both sides called expert witnesses to talk about the use of force and if Presley’s actions were reasonable and justified.
The defense’s witness Ron Martinelli, a former law enforcement officer who now runs a multi-discliplinary investigation firm, talked about how action is always faster than reaction and how adrenaline affects the body, causing vision to narrow and hearing to decrease. He also discussed that the brain doesn’t remember everything in high stress situations and recall improves with time. In the first 24 hours after a stressful incident, most officers can only accurately remember 25 percent of what happened, he said.
The state’s rebuttal witness Glyn Corbitt, a former police officer and longtime law enforcement instructor for the state, said it’s best to interview someone about an incident after two sleep cycles or 48 hours because memory has improved.
Martinelli said the human body can only focus on so much at one time and officers routinely don’t hear their own gun fire in a shooting because hearing diminishes or drops completely. Martinelli said that happened to him when he shot a suspect in 1983.
“I believe Officer Presley’s actions from beginning to end are justified,” Martinelli said.
The defense asked if he would have made the same finding regardless of who hired him and Martinelli said yes. In qualifying as an expert, Martinelli said he’d been involved in a shooting as an officer and had testified as an expert for both the defense and prosecution in cases where officers have been charged in shootings. Martinelli said he had recently helped convict three police officers.
“The evidence is what it is and it’s important to remember that the evidence doesn’t lie,” he said.
On cross-examination, prosecutor Robert German pointed out that a statement from the officer is a big part of analysis and Martinelli had that and later showed that the state’s expert did not. He also asked if Presley had any visible injuries that were documented.
“I’m not sure that even EMS did a thorough search or examination of Officer Presley to see if he had a head injury,” Martinell said.
German stressed that he’d asked about documented injuries and Martinelli responded that that was their fault if they didn’t document anything.
German asked if deadly force is a last resort. Martinelli agreed and mentioned that the fight was “prolonged.” German questioned his characterization. Martinell said 8 seconds on the ground, on your back, with a suspect on top, grabbing at your duty belt is a “violent, prolonged fight.”
After Martinelli stepped down, the state presented Corbitt as its rebuttal witness. German asked if Corbitt saw anything in the evidence he reviewed — which wasn’t everything — that showed a reasonable use of force. No, Corbitt said.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Adrienne Browning asked Corbitt about what he teaches officers about safety during traffic stops. If it would be concerning that someone got out, then went back to the car for something.
“You have no idea what’s in there and if there is something, you don’t want them to have access to it,” Corbitt said about returning to the car.
Browning walked Corbitt through the situation Presley faced, asking at each point if it was reasonable to assume that Green was armed, that a suspect’s hands at his waistband could indicate a weapon, that returning to the car could mean a weapon was retrieved and that an armed, running suspect would be a threat to the officer and the public. Corbitt agreed to each point and agreed that an officer being attacked, on the his back on the ground and the suspect moving behind him would be threatening and alarming. And it’s dark, she said.
“That just intensifies the situation,” Corbitt said.
What about using pepper spray when you’re in close contact with a suspect? No, because you risk spraying yourself, Corbitt said, later saying that he wouldn’t have used pepper spray if he were in that situation..
Browning also asked about the continuum of force, such as starting with verbal commands and escalating from there. Corbitt said the continuum isn’t taught anymore because case law has shown you can’t put an officer’s actions into a chart and actions vary.
“You could go to the ultimate level of force being a firearm,” he said.
Browning laid out the conditions Presley faced and asked Corbitt what he would have done.
“I would use deadly force,” Corbitt said.
Browning closed by asking if an officer had to get shot before to return fire. No, Corbitt said.
On redirect, German asked if Corbitt would be concerned that it was a weapon if someone ran back to the car and grabbed a small, dark object on a traffic stop. Yes, Corbitt said.
German asked if Corbitt would have ran after that suspect with a Taser and if he would teach that response. No, Corbitt said.
Is it unreasonable to use deadly force on a subject? No, Corbitt said.
Back on cross-examination, Browning asked what Corbitt would have done if he hadn’t pulled his Taser.
“I would have my firearm,” Corbitt said.
The defense rested by midday Thursday and both sides gave their closing arguments after a lunch break. The defense went first.
In her closing, Browning talked about time, light and fear, laying out that investigators were able to rewind, pause and play the video footage over and over again in less stressful conditions to reach their conclusions. They had time to critique “the decision that he had to make in a second,” she said.
“The only true view is what he saw that night,” Browning said. “... It’s too bad they don’t have a program called Zech’s eyes that they can put on the scene.”
She talked about how the only time light has been important in the state’s case is when they’ve talked about the glowing cellphone that Green had in his hand when he was shot.
But what’s most important is fear, she said.
“It’s not anger. It’s not passion. It’s not violent,” she said, adding that witnesses testified that Presley wasn’t angry or aggressive.
“What we did hear continuously was that he was distraught,” Browning said. “‘... I thought he was going to kill me. Am I OK? Is he OK?’”
It doesn’t matter what was actually in Green’s hand that night, she said. It matters what Presley perceived and a shooting can be justified without a weapon being present.
She raised the similarities between Georgia Bureau of Investigation case agent Will Ivey’s own chase with Green when he was a Kingsland officer and Presley’s chase but for Presley it was darker, there was no backup and he couldn’t see Green’s hands. Training says “the hands are what kills you,” she said.
In the same situation Presley faced, Ivey hypothetically agreed that he would have fired too and Corbitt said the same thing, she said.
“Circumstances forced Zech Presley to make that decision in a fraction of a second,” she said.
She laid out all the “red flags” that Presley perceived throughout the encounter and that Presley ended up in fear for his life.
“Tony Green was shot because of bad decision after bad decision after bad decision until the threat was so overwhelming and Zech feared for his life,” she said. “... If Tony Green had done one thing right that night, this office would be prosecuting him.”
By choice, the state went last with prosecutor Rocky Bridges making the argument. He talked about how no one wants to prosecute a police officer.
“We can’t take the easy route. We have to do what’s right,” he said.
He agreed that Green made those “bad decisions” and they wouldn’t be in court now if he hadn’t but Presley also decided to pull the trigger.
“You don’t have to like Tony Green,” he said. “You don’t have to think that he acted right.”
No one says that Presley meant to kill someone but “he made a series of mistakes,” Bridges said.
Bridges also addressed a point the prosecution had raised throughout the trial. If Presley truly perceived a weapon, why did he give chase with a Taser? Why didn’t he get on the radio and call for backup? He never believed there was a gun, that’s why, Bridges said.
“He had no reason to believe that Tony Green was armed,” he said.
Bridges asked the jury to weigh what Presley said and didn’t say right after the shooting — “he started taking off and I fired,” Bridges said quoting Presley’s body camera footage — against the 472 days he had “to script a story that fits the law” and what he remembered and doesn’t remember about that night.
“It’s not reasonable to shoot someone running away,” Bridges said.
Although Green was shot in the chest, he was also shot in the back and hips, so it’s more reasonable that he was shot in the back running away and his body spun. Presley knows that if Green isn’t facing him, the shooting can’t be justified, Bridges said.
And 472 days later, he “makes a statement that matches the evidence and the law.”
Bridges reiterated that the jury didn’t have to like Green to believe that he didn’t deserve to die and pointed to the break between the altercation and the shooting, saying there was “no immediate threat to the officer or the public.”
So which version is true? What Presley said 10 minutes later or 472 days later, Bridges posed.
“Yes, he was fearful, absolutely, but he panicked and decided to pull the trigger,” Bridges said.