As we’ve noted before, it’s rare for criminal charges to be filed when a police officer shoots a civilian. In Austin, when Detective Charles Kleinert was indicted for the shooting of Larry Jackson Jr. last month, it was the first such indictment out of 25 potential incidents; in Houston, Harris County grand juries have indicted only one officer since 2004; in Dallas, a pair of indictments this spring broke a forty-year drought for criminal charges against police officers who’ve shot civilians.
Every case is different, and not every incident requires criminal indictments against officers—but by all evidence, it seems the odds of a trial happening when a police officer shoots a person they suspect of committing a crime are not good.
Convictions, meanwhile, are even more rare. As the Austin American-Statesman reported earlier this year:
If indictments against police officers are rare, convictions are almost unheard of. Numerous officials said that they could not recall a law enforcement officer ever being criminally convicted for an on-duty shooting in Travis County.
The almost unheard of occurred in Conroe yesterday, though, when a thirty-year-old officer, Jason Blackwelder, was convicted of manslaughter for shooting unarmed nineteen-year-old Russell Rios in the back of the head as he fled the scene of a Walmart store at which he’d been suspected of shoplifting $50 worth of candles and phone cases.
Sgt. Jason Blackwelder, 30, was off-duty when he fired a shot that struck 19-year-old Russell Rios in the back of the head during a struggle, killing the unarmed community college student instantly, prosecutors say. Store security guards had accused Rios of taking iPhone covers and candles valued at $50.
The 410th district court jury deliberated for 10 hours before convicting Blackwelder in Rios’ death.
The details of the struggle between Blackwelder and Rios that eventually led to the fatal shooting were in doubt throughout the trial; Blackwelder, who was off-duty, out of uniform, and carrying his gun in the waistband of his pants, claimed that Rios, who had fled on foot to some woods behind the store, began choking him. Later, when findings from an autopsy report showed that Rios had been shot in the back of the head, Blackwelder’s version of the story came under scrutiny:
Prosecutors Kelly Blackburn and Jeff Hohl argued that the wound to the back of Rios’ head and blood splatter patterns on the front of Blackwelder’s shirt did not support the officer’s claim about the choke-hold. Rather, prosecutors contended the evidence showed Rios was face down when the gun went off unintentionally during a struggle.
“An officer can’t use deadly force unless he’s in fear of the use of deadly force,” said Grant, the Montgomery County district attorney’s first assistant.
Even with a conviction for manslaughter, a sentence that includes jail time for a police officer who shoots an unarmed man in the back of the head remains truly hard to imagine. Blackwelder was sentenced one day after his conviction to five years probation.