April 12th, 2024

Connecticut trooper acquitted in shooting death of Black man following high-speed chase

By Dave Collins, The Associated Press on March 15, 2024.

State Trooper Brian North listens to closing arguments in Connecticut Superior Court on the eighth day of his trial in Milford, Conn., Wednesday, March 13, 2024. North is charged with manslaughter for shooting 19-year-old Mubarak Soulemane in January 2020 in West Haven after a chase from Norwalk on Interstate 95. (Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP, Pool)

A white Connecticut state police trooper was acquitted of all charges Friday in the death of Mubarak Soulemane, a Black community college student with mental illness who was shot as he sat behind the wheel of a stolen car holding a kitchen knife.

Trooper Brian North, 33, could have faced up to 40 years in prison if he had been convicted of first-degree manslaughter in the Jan. 15, 2020, shooting, which the state’s inspector general said should not have happened because North and other officers were not in imminent danger. But the six-person jury in Milford acquitted him on that charge and two lesser counts: second-degree manslaughter and negligent homicide.

North showed little emotion as the verdicts were read. Afterward, he shook hands with his lawyers and hugged the head of the state police union, Andrew Matthews.

Outside of court, his lead attorney, Frank Riccio II, said North is still shaken by the shooting.

“This is not something that he will ever live down, because it was a very traumatic experience,” Riccio said. “The verdict is obviously favorable for him, but it doesn’t change what happened on Jan. 15.”

North fired his handgun seven times at close range into the car’s door after Soulemane, 19, led police on a high-speed chase through several towns on Interstate 95. The shooting happened less than a minute after the chase ended in West Haven as police surrounded the car after it crashed into another vehicle.

North testified that he fired when Soulemane pulled out a 9-inch knife and made a threatening movement. North said he believed Soulemane posed a danger to police officers who were on the other side of the car and had just broken the passenger door window.

But Inspector General Robert Devlin, who investigates all police uses of deadly force in the state, said no officers were in danger because the stolen car was boxed in and couldn’t go anywhere. He said officers made no attempt to de-escalate the situation.

The local NAACP and clergy decried the shooting as another unnecessary killing of a Black man by police, but race was not raised as an issue at the trial. Soulemane’s family and supporters mainly called for North to be arrested. The Rev. Al Sharpton attended Soulemane’s memorial service and said North didn’t appear to be justified.

The state police union, meanwhile, criticized Devlin for charging North, saying the trooper was forced to make a split-second decision and believed he was protecting other officers.

The jury delivered the verdict after hearing evidence and closing arguments over eight days.

Soulemane struggled with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to his family. His mother, sister and girlfriend, who testified at the trial, said in the days leading up to the shooting, Soulemane’s mental health problems were worsening and he was acting paranoid and erratically – behavior he previously displayed when he went off his medications.

Police said the series of events on the day of Soulemane’s death began when he displayed a knife at an AT&T store in Norwalk and unsuccessfully tried to steal a cellphone. Police said he then slapped a Lyft driver and drove off in the driver’s car after the driver got out, leading police on a 30-mile (48-kilometer) chase from Norwalk to West Haven at speeds reaching up to 100 mph (161 kph) during the afternoon rush hour.

Norwalk officers had ended their pursuit before it reached I-95 because of the high speed and heavy traffic, and the fact that no violent crime had occurred. State police continued the pursuit, after receiving false information that the car theft was a carjacking, according to trial testimony. State troopers said Soulemane struck their cruisers during the chase.

The pursuit ended when Soulemane exited the highway, struck a civilian’s car and was boxed in by troopers and local police in West Haven. Police said the officers ordered him out of the car, but he didn’t obey them.

State police body camera videos show that a West Haven officer smashed out the passenger door window of the stolen vehicle before another trooper, Joshua Jackson, shot Soulemane with a Taser through the window, though it had no effect on Soulemane, who was wearing a heavy coat.

North told jurors that he fired his gun because he thought the West Haven officer – whom he couldn’t see – had leaned in through the smashed window and was in danger from Soulemane, who made a motion to the passenger side of the car while holding the knife.

“I was afraid that he was going to be stabbed in the face or the neck, which obviously can be a fatal injury,” North testified. “I felt that I had to act in that moment or the West Haven officer, even potentially Trooper Jackson, could have been killed.”

North said he still thinks about the shooting every day and loses sleep over it. He said it was a difficult experience to live with, given that he became a trooper to try to help people.

The inspector general questioned North about why he decided to shoot. noting that the officers had the car boxed in, the car’s windows were up and Soulemane was sitting in the driver’s seat not moving when they ran up to the car.

The officers, Devlin suggested, could have tried to talk to Soulemane on their cruiser PA systems instead of rushing to the car and escalating things. Soulemane was shot about 35 seconds after North got out of his cruiser.

“In fact, now that you’ve seen all the videos and heard the testimony of those officers, in fact there was no danger to anybody outside the car … correct?” Devlin asked North.

“Not from what I could see now and after hearing testimony. But what I’m perceiving at the time is that there was danger,” North said.

North earlier testified that the situation unfolded quickly and escalated when the West Haven officer broke the passenger door window.

Two law enforcement experts who reviewed the case testified for the defense. They believed the shooting was justified, but their conclusions were barred from the trial because the judge said that final determination was up to the jury to decide. An expert who testified for the prosecution, though, determined that the officers had time to pause and de-escalate the situation.

Soulemane’s mother, Omo Mohammed, has a pending lawsuit against the police over the killing.

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