A man who fatally shot a 23-year-old Falls Church man last month during a scuffle did not commit a crime, a Fairfax County grand jury found yesterday in declining to file charges.
Friends and relatives of victim Jack "Steve" Cornejo said the former high school soccer star was not a violent man and would never start a fight. But the grand jury decided otherwise, according to Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., who presented the case to the panel and received no indictment for only the third time in his 38 years as prosecutor.
Because Cornejo, who had a seemingly nonviolent nature, was shot once in the back, his family was mystified when the shooter wasn't immediately arrested. Now, with the shooter free from all charges, the family is furious.
"When people talk about justice and you see things like this, it's like a lie," Cornejo's cousin Juan Carlos Cornejo said. "I can't believe something like this would ever happen. . . . For the cops to say this was self-defense, it doesn't make sense."
Steve Cornejo and a young woman had attended an apartment party early June 25 in the 12000 block of Pender Creek Circle, just off West Ox Road in Fair Oaks. About 4:30 a.m., police said, Cornejo and the woman were arguing loudly in a hallway outside the party, awakening neighbors. The two moved down to the apartment building's entryway, where one of the neighbors then intervened "to prevent an assault that was going on on a young woman," Horan said.
The neighbor apparently was armed with a concealed handgun. After the neighbor determined the conflict between Cornejo and the woman was over, Horan said, "every bit of evidence we had was he [the neighbor] was trying to leave, he had broken it off and was going back to his apartment when the victim [Cornejo] attacked him."
Horan added: "There is no question that the evidence indicated that Cornejo struck him from behind and knocked him over a hedge. In fact, the police found his glasses the next day next to the hedge."
The prosecutor said he thought police had uncovered all the evidence in the case. "And the evidence was that the aggressor throughout was the victim, and the evidence was he was not just a little drunk, he was very, very drunk," Horan said. Toxicology reports showed Cornejo's blood alcohol level to be .20, more than twice the legal limit in Virginia, Horan said.
Witnesses told police that Cornejo and the man fought. "In the course of that, the gun went off and the victim was shot," Horan said.
The neighbor, whose name and age have not been released, was never taken into custody and will face no criminal charges. Cornejo's family is considering a civil lawsuit.
According to the neighbor and witnesses' accounts, Cornejo was on top of the neighbor as they wrestled on the ground, Horan said. The neighbor then grabbed for his handgun and was attempting to hit Cornejo with the handle while holding the gun in his left hand, though the man is right-handed, Horan said.
The bullet struck Cornejo's back, penetrating his lung, Horan said. The neighbor claimed "he did not intentionally pull the trigger," Horan said, "and there is no evidence to contrary. Many people saw them on the ground wrestling, with Cornejo getting the best of it."
Horan rarely lets a grand jury make a decision for him. He has said in the past that he is elected to make the tough calls, and he alone decided in 2000 not to file charges against a Prince George's County police officer who fatally shot a man in Falls Church.
"But this is a very unusual case," he said, explaining his decision to have Fairfax Detective Chester Toney present the case to a grand jury of seven Fairfax residents. He said it had elements of an accidental killing, a self-defense killing or worse, because the neighbor brought a gun to a fight with an unarmed man.
Ultimately, Horan gave the grand jury the option of indicting the neighbor for involuntary manslaughter. "I really left it up to them," the prosecutor said, "knowing full well if you can't convince seven citizens that there's probable cause, you'll never convince a trial jury beyond a reasonable doubt to come up with a unanimous verdict."
Members of Cornejo's family, who waited in the courthouse for the grand jury's decision yesterday, said they had uncovered evidence that the police ignored. "My cousin was beaten down," Juan Carlos Cornejo said. "He had bruises on his forehead and on his back. He was beaten, and then he was shot."
Juan Carlos Cornejo said he had spoken with the woman who attended the party with his cousin. "He did not hit her," he said. "There was an argument but nothing else." He said the family "never felt the police were on our side, from day one. They never gave us any information. There's no fairness at all. Obviously, they've taken sides."