SACRAMENTO — Nearly a year after an unarmed black man was fatally shot by Sacramento police, prosecutors on Saturday announced there would be no charges against the two officers who fired at and killed Stephon Clark.
Clark, a 22-year-old father of two, was fatally shot March 18 as he ran to the backyard of his grandmother’s Sacramento home while police were responding to a neighbor’s call about someone breaking into cars. Officers said they began shooting at Clark because they thought he was holding a gun. He was later found to have been holding an iPhone.
Police body camera and helicopter footage later showed the officers had fired at Clark 20 times. The official coroner’s report concluded Clark was shot seven times, while an independent autopsy ordered by Clark’s family showed he had been struck eight times, including six in the back.
Clark’s shooting sparked demonstrations in California’s capital and nationwide. In January, Clark’s family filed a $20 million lawsuit against the city of Sacramento.
At a news conference Saturday, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert acknowledged the “tremendous grief, anger and anxiety by the Clark family and by this community” since the shooting. She said she had met that morning with Clark’s mother, whose grief was “very apparent.”
“There is no question that the death of Stephon Clark is a tragedy, not just for his family but for this community,” Schubert said. “My job as a district attorney is to make sure that we conduct a full, fair and independent review of this shooting. That job means that I follow the facts in the law and that, in that process of this review, that we treat everyone with dignity, grace and fairness.”
Schubert announced that a months-long investigation supported the conclusion that the officers — Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet — were justified in using deadly force against Clark.
“We must recognize that [police officers] are often forced to make split-second decisions. We must also recognize that they are under tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving circumstances,” Schubert said. “That is the crux of this whole case: Did the officers have an honest and reasonable belief they needed to defend themselves?” In this case, the officers believed they did, Schubert said.
After the decision was announced, Clark’s mother — flanked by family members at a somber news conference — said it was “only the beginning” of the family’s fight for justice.
“We’re outraged,” SeQuette Clark told reporters. “They executed my son. They executed him in my mom’s backyard. And it is not right. It is not right. . . . We’re not going to accept that. We’ve been sitting for a year patiently allowing [Schubert] an opportunity to do right, and she has failed us.”
In particular, Clark took issue with Schubert’s decision to reveal text messages and other evidence Saturday that indicated her son had been suicidal and having domestic problems before the shooting.
“What was on his cellphone with [Stephon Clark] and his baby’s mother has zero to do with the actions of the police officers at the time of his homicide,” SeQuette Clark said. “What should be under investigation and in your report is solely the actions of your officers. It’s not hard. It’s simple. . . . Stop trying to justify by looking at a person’s character or your assumption or judgment or opinion of him because you didn’t know him.”
For more than an hour during the news conference, Schubert had reviewed extensive footage and evidence gathered from the moments leading up to the shooting, some of which she said was new. For instance, Schubert said DNA analysis showed Clark was the suspect in the vehicle break-ins that had prompted a neighbor to call 911.
“That was not known at the time,” Schubert said.
Investigators concluded Clark, on the night of the shooting, had smashed three car windows, jumped fences into backyards and smashed the rear sliding window of a home while a helicopter was overhead, Schubert said.
She also replayed body camera footage of the moments just before the shooting, warning that it was “graphic and troubling to watch.”
In the video, the two officers can be seen following Clark into a dark backyard, later realized to be the home of Clark’s grandmother. As they rounded the corner, Clark was at least 30 feet away behind a picnic table, Schubert said.
In the video, Mercadal can be heard shouting: “Show me your hands! Gun! Show me your hands! Gun, gun, gun!”
Immediately afterward, the officers can be heard firing 20 times in the video. Then, an officer is heard saying: “He is down. No movement. We’re going to need additional units.”
Schubert also slowed down frames from body camera video that showed a “flash of light” in Clark’s hands that Mercadal said he believed was a muzzle flash from a gun, while Robinet said he believed it was light reflecting off a gun.
“They don’t have to wait to get shot to use deadly force,” Schubert said.
After the announcement, Jamilia Land, a close family friend of the Clarks, told The Washington Post she was not surprised by the decision. She called the news conference a “smear campaign” against Clark.
"It’s what is to be expected, a smear campaign on the deceased person’s life before inflicting the final wound of ‘there will be no charges,’ " Land said in a phone interview Saturday afternoon. “We live in a country where if we have a young white shooter who’s gone in and killed a slew of people, there are de-escalation tactics used. . . . That is a part of the outrage we feel in the African American community.”
During the interview, Land abruptly excused herself, then called back shortly afterward, sobbing, to say paramedics were taking Clark’s grandmother to the hospital. She had already been under extreme stress since Clark’s death, and the events of the day had been “too much,” Land said.
“The anxiety and waiting to hear this news, the fact that he’s gone and there’s no coming back and there’s no justice,” Land said. “It’s literally breaking her heart. It’s killing all of us. We want to stop being killed! We’re tired of being gunned down senselessly. Our lives matter.”
Ben Crump and Dale Galipo, attorneys for the Clark family, vowed to pursue justice through the civil courts.
“The key and inescapable fact that the DA failed to even acknowledge is that Stephon was shot in the back multiple times,” Crump said in a statement. “If he was advancing on the officers, why was he shot in the back and the side? Why were 20 shots fired, striking him eight times, even while falling to the ground and while on the ground? These facts cannot be reconciled with the DA’s narrative that the officers were in fear of their lives.”
The decision not to charge the officers was not a surprise for some. In emails sent earlier this week, lawmakers were urged to avoid California’s Capitol during the weekend, while downtown Sacramento business owners were advised to prepare for protests, the Sacramento Bee reported, leading to speculation that the district attorney’s decision might upset the community.
At a news conference later Saturday evening, Clark’s girlfriend, Salena Manni, said, “My boys Aidan and Cairo have to grow up without their father, and I have to continue on as a single parent without Stephon.” Manni paused frequently to weep as she spoke to reporters. “Please don’t stop advocating for legislation and policies that could protect other families from suffering this overwhelming pain and immense sense of loss,” she said.
Shortly after the news conference, the Sacramento chapter of Black Lives Matter tweeted for supporters to “COME THRU NOW!!!!” and listed the address of Sacramento police headquarters.
By early evening, a few dozen protesters had gathered in the rain-drenched parking lot of the police station. Some protesters held a Black Lives Matter banner that read, “We must love and support one another.” Others held signs that read “Fire! Charge! Convict!,” “Honk for justice” and “Stop killing our kids!”
“Nothing is being done,” 23-year-old Breanna Martin, of south Sacramento, told the crowd. “You saw today what happened. Nothing happens.”
After Martin spoke, she walked off to a corner of the parking lot. Others followed. Martin began to cry and hugged the other protesters.
As a round of speeches ended, a protester headed to the middle of the circle and burned a black-and-white American flag that featured a thin blue line across the center, a pro-police symbol. Some protesters, posing for a photo in front of the police station doors, gave a middle finger to officers lined up inside behind the glass.
“No one should die over a broken window,” said Victor Brazelton, 39, of Sacramento. “Cops shouldn’t have more rights than the people.”
Deon Taylor, 45, of Sacramento came to the rally with his family. He said he wanted to show his 14-year-old daughter, Milan, what it means to be black in America. He said he hoped more young people would choose to become police officers and patrol their own neighborhoods, where they know who people are and how to ask the right questions.
The American Civil Liberties Union called for “immediate reform” of California’s law on the use of deadly force after the district attorney’s announcement.
“No family should have to live through what Mr. Clark’s family is going through: first traumatized by a system of policing that violently and unjustly takes the lives of unarmed Black men at alarming rates and retraumatized again by a justice system that is set up to sanction these unnecessary killings,” Lizzie Buchen, legislative advocate for the ACLU of the California Center for Advocacy and Policy, said in a statement.
Clark’s family members have been advocating for the passage of Assembly Bill 392, which would establish clearer use-of-force guidelines, including mandating that police use de-escalation tactics whenever possible.
The Sacramento Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment Saturday.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg said in an interview last year that he was “extremely conscious” of the concerns many have expressed regarding police accountability in recent years. “There is deep pain and anguish” in Sacramento, he said. “It’s our job to bear some of that pain and to help translate the anguish and grieving and the historic pain [of black communities] into tangible and real change.”
Just under 1,000 people are shot and killed by police officers each year, according to The Washington Post’s database. A handful of those shootings lead to criminal charges, and convictions are even more rare, which has prompted intense criticism from civil rights activists across the country.
Mark Berman and Alex Horton contributed to this report.