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Denver police cleared in shooting of 17-year-old driver

A rosary is draped over a portrait of 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez in her Thornton, Colo., home in January. (David Zalubowski/AP)
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The Denver police officers who shot and killed a 17-year-old in January were justified and will not face charges, the city’s district attorney said Friday.

Police had said they were walking up to a stolen Honda Civic when the vehicle was driven toward one of them and they opened fire. Jessica Hernandez, who was driving the car, was fatally shot.

Officers Gabriel Jordan told investigators that he believed the driver of the car was trying to run him over during the episode, according to the investigation. The other officer, Daniel Greene, also told investigators he believed the car was going to “run [Jordan] over and get out of there.” 

In a letter announcing his decision, Mitchell R. Morrissey, the Denver district attorney, said that the investigation showed him that the officers acted reasonably.

“The facts show this was a defensive shooting by both officers,” Morrissey wrote. “That is, their decisions to shoot Ms. Hernandez were justifiable in light of the manner in which she drove the car in close and dangerous proximity to them, threatening the life of Officer Jordan who had little room to avoid the car.”

According to the summary of the investigation provided by Morrissey’s office, physical evidence backed up the assertion from both officers that the car was moving forward when they opened fire.

Morrissey said he determined that while the officers were legally justified because they they believed Jordan was “in imminent danger,” he also said it was not clear if Hernandez saw Jordan and intended to run him over.

Still, he said that her intent at that moment did not matter. “The threat would appear identical to the officers whether Hernandez was intending to drive over Officer Jordan or not,” he wrote.

Hernandez’s death sparked outrage in the community, with relatives asking why she was shot when she did not have a gun on her. It was one of several episodes over the past year that prompted questions about whether lethal force used by police was truly necessary.

[Thousands of police shootings over the last decade, but few prosecutions]

As this debate has raged, though, the precise number of police shootings is not known, and federal statistics on the issue are widely considered incomplete. As a result, The Washington Post is assembling a database of every fatal police shooting this year as well as of every officer shot and killed while in the line of duty.

Hernandez is one of the nearly 400 people shot and killed by police so far this year, according to this Washington Post analysis.

Hernandez was one of eight people killed who was younger than age 18. According to The Post’s analysis, about 22 of the people shot by police — or about 5 percent — were driving a car or truck that could have been used as a weapon against officers.