Cops cleared in fatal shooting

District attorney panel says no criminal charges should be filed in killing of Anthony Benavidez

A panel of district attorneys says criminal prosecution is not warranted in the case of two Santa Fe police officers who shot and killed Anthony Benavidez.
First Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna announced the findings of a three-DA panel on Friday afternoon.
The panel, which included district attorneys from the 4th, 9th and 2nd judicial districts, reviewed the July 19, 2017 shooting case file from State Police and unanimously concluded Santa Fe Police Department officers Jeramie Bisagna and Luke Wakefield “should not be criminally charged for their actions.” 

James Hallinan, Serna's spokesman, confirms in text message to SFR that Serna will adopt the panel's finding and decline to prosecute Wakefield and Bisagna.

Citing their interpretation of the legal standard prosecutors must meet to charge officers for an on-duty shooting, the panel's seven-page letter says Bisagna and Wakefield were "acting under the reasonable belief that Anthony Benavidez's actions posed a threat of death or great bodily harm to themselves, other officers or the general public."

Benavidez, who had schizophrenia, displayed "erratic and potentially dangerous behavior," the report says, noting that when officers from the SWAT team broke a window in his bedroom, he was holding a "silver object." The officers, who were on the other side of a cinder block wall from the victim, both told investigators they initially thought the object was a gun. Later, Wakefield realized it was a knife.

It was Wakefield's single shot from a .223 rifle that struck Benavidez in the head, killing him. Bisagna, who has served as department firearms trainer, fired 16 shots, three of which hit Benavidez in the legs and groin.

"Although it is somewhat unusual for officers to fire 16 times to end a perceived threat from an armed suspect, it appears Officer Bisagna was unable to accurately fire his weapon while simultaneously holding onto the ballistic shield he was carrying at the time," reads a footnote in the DAs' letter. "Nevertheless, officers are routinely trained to discharge their weapons until the perceived threat has been eliminated and, under the rapidly evolving, dynamic circumstances of the encounter, the number of shots fired can be explained and has no legal relevance to the question of whether the officers' perception of the threat presented was reasonable.

Late last year, the City of Santa Fe and its insurance carrier settled a civil suit brought by Benavidez family with a payout of $400,000.

Shannon Kennedy, an Albuquerque-based civil rights lawyer whose firm represented the family, disagreed with the panel's findings. She also blasted Serna's office for its unwillingness to keep the family informed while the case was being reviewed.

"Throughout the course of our representation, we have tried repeatedly to meet with the office of the First Judicial District Attorney about this case," Kennedy says, adding that she learned from the panel's findings from SFR on Friday. "They clearly had their backs turned on this family from the very beginning until today, the end."

The panel's letter is dated Thursday, March 28. Serna's office sent it to journalists just before 4 pm on Friday. The panel met to discuss the case on Feb. 26, after receiving it from State Police about a year before that, and promised to deliver its findings March 1.

Read the letter here. 

UPDATED: Santa Fe police issued a statement late Friday indicating its leadership "supports the conclusion" of the panel.

"This decision will not be deemed as a positive outcome for some of you all, but it is devastating for all involved," reads a statement attributed to Chief Andrew Padilla.

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