The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland officers cleared after killing man who pointed pistol at them

Four officers in Montgomery County, Md., had fired more than 30 rounds during traffic stop

Police video still shows a Maryland man pointing gun before officers fatally shot him during an early morning traffic stop near downtown Silver Spring, Md. (Maryland Attorney General’s Office)
Placeholder while article actions load

Four Maryland police officers were legally justified in firing more than 30 rounds at a man who had pointed his gun at them during a fatal traffic stop late last year in Silver Spring, prosecutors announced Thursday.

An 18-page report into the killing of Osman Sesay, 27, also revealed details about what Sesay said just before he burst from the back seat at 4:32 a.m. to confront the officers.

“I can’t go back to jail,” he told two others in the car, according to the report. “I love you guys.”

Sesay then opened his door, turned toward the officers and lifted a Glock .45-caliber pistol equipped with a device designed to turn it into a fully automatic weapon, the report asserts. It is unclear if he fired the gun, which after the encounter was found near his body with a live round jammed between the frame and slide of gun, and eight more rounds in the magazine.

At least two Montgomery County police video recordings of the Dec. 29 encounter — one from a police car dashboard, the other from a body camera — captured Sesay raising his weapon.

“There’s no question Mr. Sesay pointed a gun at them because it’s caught on camera,” said Howard State’s Attorney Rich Gibson. “When someone points a gun at police officers, those officers certainly have the right to believe their lives are in danger, and have the right to use what they see as a corresponding level of force.”

Michael Ashley, an attorney for Sesay’s family, said they remain devastated by the passing of a young man who had just launched a clothing line called “Children of the Trenches,” designed to bring awareness to worldwide poverty among youths.

The family remains concerned about the police handling of the entire incident, Ashley said, including any delays in them coming to check on Sesay after he fell to the pavement.

“Our concerns are not necessary confined to the use of force,” Ashley said. “The officers had a duty to render aid.”

He declined to speak in detail, saying he has yet to receive the full investigative file — including all of the video recordings captured by officers at the scene.

Several agencies were involved in the incident and the ensuing investigation.

The shooting officers were from the Montgomery County Police Department, the main law enforcement force in a jurisdiction of 1.1. million residents just north of Washington, D.C. They had pulled over the Mercedes because they believed it had just been involved in a different shooting a half-mile away.

The investigation into the officers’ actions was conducted by a relatively new unit at the Maryland Attorney General’s Office that has begun probing officer-involved fatalities in the state. Its 18-page report was submitted to Gibson’s office, just north of Montgomery County, based on an agreement between the counties’ prosecutors to review each other’s officer-involved fatal shootings.

Evidence at the scene showed at least 34 shell casings from the officers’ guns. An autopsy of Sesay’s body showed he was hit three times — with bullets entering his arm, his lower back and his buttocks. Gibson stressed that the wounds to Sesay’s backside should be seen in the context of his actions — specifically, that he was pointing his gun as he was turning away from the police and as they started shooting.

How many people have been shot and killed by police in the past year?

“This is all separated by milliseconds, fractions of seconds,” Gibson said.

The attorney general’s report described a shooting that preceded the traffic stop. About 4:25 a.m., a gunshot erupted in the midst of a large crowd outside a restaurant on Bonifant Street in downtown Silver Spring. As it happened, an off-duty Montgomery County detective was in the immediate area because he had stopped to pick up some food.

The detective sat the victim on the ground and scanned the crowd, learning that shooter was said to be in a white Mercedes that the detective saw driving away. He radioed a description of the car.

A minute later, Officer Nathan Lenhart — who was involved in a different traffic stop — saw a white Mercedes pass him. He followed the Mercedes, and pulled it over near the corner of Wayne and Dartmouth avenues.

As other officers arrived, Lenhart commanded the driver and front-seat passenger to lift their hands out through their opened windows, according to police videos. Sesay then began to open his rear passenger door.

“Stay in the car!” an officer yelled as he continued getting out, according to recordings.

After the four officers fired, they remained concerned about the two other car occupants. When they commanded the driver to exit, he said the door was stuck, so they ordered him to climb out the window and then walk backward to them, which he did. The other three officers who fired their weapons were earlier identified as Karli Dorsey, Dennis Tejada and Eric Kessler.

About this time, an officer who could see Sesay’s body saw movement. “His hand is moving,” the officer said, according to the report.

The passenger was also removed from the car. At 4:39 a.m. — some seven minutes after shooting him — officers approached Sesay, who was lying facedown near a pool of blood in front of the Mercedes. One officer tried to take his pulse. “I got nothing,” he said.

Investigators with the attorney general’s office looked into whether the officers waited too long to approach Sesay and may have been subject to misconduct in office charges, according to the report.

But they noted that the officers, immediately after the shooting, called for paramedics. Then, “any delay in officers physically getting to Mr. Sesay was reasonable,” the report concluded, “as officers had to remove the other occupants from the car and otherwise secure the scene in order to ensure the safety of officers and the surrounding community.”

Lee Holland, president of Montgomery County’s police union, FOP Lodge 35, said the officers responded as they were trained, and noted that Sesay’s pistol had been modified to fire like a machine gun.

“The investigation concluded that the events that night, if the gun had operated as intended, could have resulted in severe injuries or death to these officers and/or innocent bystanders,” Holland said. “Although these officers are cleared of potential criminal charges, this is an event they must live with for the rest of their lives.”