A Mississippi prosecutor said that a police officer who shot and killed Ismael Lopez (left),  after going to the wrong house, won’t face criminal charges. (AP Photo/Adrian Sainz, file)
Opinion writer

After just over a year, we finally have some news about the death of Ismael Lopez. Last year, police in Southaven, Mississippi, mistakenly went to Lopez’s home in search of a man wanted on a domestic violence warrant. They had gone to the wrong house.

What happened next is in dispute, but it ended with one officer going into the house and killing Lopez. (The man whose name was on the warrant was later arrested without incident.)

For months, local authorities refused to speak to Lopez’s family. The family only recently obtained autopsy results. And their attorney was only able to obtain the name of the officer who shot Lopez through a leak.

This week, the grand jury announced that there will be no criminal charges for the officers involved in Lopez’s death.

It’s odd, because District Attorney John Champion seems to disagree, at least in public. We’re told that prosecutors can get grand juries to indict a ham sandwich. But when it comes to cops, a DA’s powers of persuasion appear mysteriously inept.

Here are just a few of the important questions and inconsistencies in the case.

  • The police claim Lopez was killed because he pointed his gun at them, even after they repeatedly announced themselves. Yet only one of the officers fired his gun at Lopez. If Lopez did indeed present a deadly threat, why didn’t the other officers fire?
  • According to the autopsy report, Lopez was shot in the back of the head. That isn’t impossible to square with the police narrative, but it certainly calls it into question.
  • The autopsy report itself was apparently unusually short — just two to three pages, when most such reports are at least 10. Even Champion said it was insufficient, telling a local news station, “There’s nothing in it honestly.” This may have been due to Mississippi’s ongoing habit of insufficiently funding its death investigation system.
  • Champion said he did not tell the grand jury about his problems with the autopsy report.
  • Champion also said he doesn’t believe that the officers announced themselves before shooting Lopez.
  • Lopez’s wife says he was not carrying a gun when he went to the door. She also says she heard no announcement from the police officers. According to her attorney, the family’s rifle and handgun were both in their usual places.
  • According to Lopez’s attorney, two neighbors heard the raid, and neither heard the police announce themselves. One was a next-door neighbor whose window was open.
  • The family had a sign on the property warning about the dog and that Lopez was a gun owner.
  • Lopez’s body was found several feet from the door, in a separate room.
  • Prior to the shots that killed Lopez, another officer fired two shots at Lopez’s dog. Which is to say that, by the cops’ own account, they went to the wrong house, fired shots at the family dog, then killed Lopez when he appeared and pointed a gun at them.
  • The bullets that weren’t fired at the dog went through the front door. The police claim the officer fired when Lopez cracked the front door and poked a gun through the slit. Neighbors say the holes in the door indicate it was completely closed. But even taking the police account at face value, Lopez heard intruders outside his house and cracked the door with a gun either just before or just after hearing gunshots intended for his dog, at which point the police killed him.
  • Even under the best-case scenario for the police, Lopez was defending his home against armed men who had just fired a gun outside his home — which he had the legal right to do. Even if he knew they were cops at some point before he was shot (a point that is in dispute), from his perspective, all he knew is that a group of cops who had no reason to be at his home were indeed at his home, trying to come inside, and had just shot at his dog.

To me, the most plausible scenario here is that the cops went to the house. Lopez’s dog ran out. One officer fired at the dog. Another officer heard those shots, thought they came from someone inside the house, panicked, and fired shots through the door. But given the evidence, there’s really no scenario under which Lopez is to blame.

After the grand jury announcement, the district attorney, Champion, at least seemed somewhat chastened. Not so for Southaven Mayor Darren Musselwhite, who took the opportunity to gloat a bit in a press statement. 

It has been very disheartening to watch the persecution of our officers by some both prematurely and inaccurately. A picture painted with partial and inaccurate information is easy to create and very influential when strategically circulated through media avenues, but can be very misleading and dangerous to those that value the truth.

You know what else is “disheartening” to those who “value truth”? That Southaven officials wouldn’t release the name of the officer who killed Lopez. That Lopez’s family has been kept in the dark all this time. That it took a year to release the autopsy report. That the autopsy report itself was cursory at best. That the police department never apologized to the family, that the family was left to clean up Lopez’s blood on their own, and that the city made no effort to repair the damage done to the home.

In his own statement, police Chief Steven Pirtle also criticized “inaccurate” and “inflammatory” statements, but added that he couldn’t comment on them due to pending litigation.

Understandably, the killing of Lopez seems to have traumatized the local Latino community. Lopez served as a mentor to troubled teens. One neighbor told news station WREG, “After I had found out the next day about what had happened, for about a week after that I had nightmares. I had dreams the police came into my house and shot me.” Another told a different local news station that Lopez, a mechanic, often helped out his neighbors for free. “Like every time our cars didn’t work, he was the one who fixed them.” Another, through a translator, said she expected this outcome because Lopez is Latino. “She said they’re Mexican, they can’t do anything. They can’t do justice for what they did.”

One more thing: Here we have a man who died while legally defending his home and family from armed intruders who trespassed on his property, shot at his dog and were approaching his door. One would think this would be the kind of case that would have a gun rights group like the NRA hopping mad. From what I can tell, there’s no mention of Lopez on the NRA website, or on NRATV, where the group posts its commercials and videos. The latter, however, does have a ton to say about Colin Kaepernick. (Who, by the way, at least at one time enjoyed shooting for sport and, as far as I know, has never disparaged gun rights.) As we’ve discussed here before, despite all the talk about the need for guns to defend against government tyranny, when armed government agents shoot and kill innocent gun owners, too often the nation’s largest gun rights group is nowhere to be found.

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