An attorney for the family of Winston Smith on Friday called for an independent investigation into his killing by a U.S. Marshals Service task force, pointing out that officers at the scene were never interviewed as part of the state's investigation.
The officers submitted only written statements giving their accounts of the June 3 shooting to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), the attorney said, claiming the state's investigation was flawed.
Those statements helped provide the basis of Crow Wing County Attorney Donald Ryan's decision this month not to criminally charge the officers for Smith's death.
A state Department of Public Safety (DPS) spokesman said in an e-mail Friday that the BCA investigates use-of-force incidents in Minnesota because of "our thorough and professional approach to ensuring the integrity of an investigation" and cited information gathered in the case, including more than 1,300 photos and approximately 2,000 pages of material.
"Because this is a criminal investigation, officers have the same Constitutional rights as any other citizen," DPS communications director Bruce Gordon wrote.
"That means that all interviews conducted by the BCA are voluntary; the BCA cannot compel any officer to submit to an interview."
Members of Smith's family and activists said they remain unconvinced that the state has fully probed the matter.
"The investigation in this case was severely flawed from the very beginning," attorney Eric Newmark told reporters at a news conference at the Hennepin County Courthouse.
Members of the North Star Fugitive Task Force shot Smith to death in his car in an Uptown parking garage in Minneapolis while they were trying to arrest him on a felony warrant. Smith had missed a sentencing court date after pleading guilty to illegal possession of a firearm. Officers were not wearing body cameras, and no other footage of the confrontation has publicly emerged.
Gordon said the BCA's investigative file should be available early next week, providing more answers about the probe.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman released a letter from Ryan on Monday explaining his decision, including some officers' accounts of what happened. One officer said he saw Smith draw a gun, and the officer repeatedly yelled "gun" and began firing. A second officer then fired, too, though he said he didn't see a weapon.
Ryan wrote that after the shooting investigators found cartridge casings, a gun and defects in the car that indicated Smith fired from inside, but the prosecutor never established who shot first, saying that was irrelevant because "once an individual initiates a deadly force confrontation, a law enforcement officer does not have to wait to be shot/shot at before reacting."
Newmark said he learned during a meeting with Ryan and Smith's family on Monday that the BCA did not interview the officers.
He said he also heard from Ryan that an attorney for an officer at the scene said that if a grand jury was called, his client would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against testifying on the grounds that it would incriminate him.
"They all provided written statements with time to consult with their attorneys, with time to consult with their colleagues. Is that transparency?" Newmark said.
He added that the authorities have still not released the names of the officers who shot Smith, calling it "astonishing" and "disgraceful." Gordon said the BCA is prohibited from releasing the identities of officers working undercover.
Some members of the Smith family said they are troubled by the questions they believe are unanswered in Ryan's letter and in their meeting on Monday: Why was a federal task force involved in pursuing Smith on a state-level case? Why did officers shoot at him 14 times? They also want to see more proof that Smith fired a gun, such as the vehicle he was in and ballistic evidence.
"A lot of the stuff that [prosecutor] was saying didn't add up at all," said Capritieshay Rogers, who has a 7-year-old daughter, Jah'niyah Rogers, with Smith.
Ryan's letter quotes a member of the task force who was the second to shoot saying he believed the first officer to fire was reacting to a violent threat based on several factors, including Smith's "history of weapons cases."
Smith had only one weapons case, Rogers noted, tied to his warrant, which originated in 2019 when a friend he was going to see tipped off police that he had a gun.
Officers found no gun on him, but searched the car that he arrived in and found a firearm under the seat. Smith was prohibited from carrying a gun as a felon. He had an aggravated robbery conviction stemming from a dispute with his ex-girlfriend.
One of the family's biggest questions is why officers waited to apprehend Smith.
Ryan wrote that, according to the investigation, officers watched while Smith and a woman had a lunch date on the rooftop of Stella's Fish Cafe, and continued monitoring him as the pair walked across Lake Street and into an elevator to the top floor. The officers didn't confront him until the couple were already in a car, boxing him in with their own vehicles and announcing he was under arrest.
In his letter, Ryan wrote that officers determined that arresting Smith on the top level of the parking garage "would be the safest approach to mitigate the risk to the general public."
"Why didn't they arrest him on the elevator?" Smith's brother, Kidale Smith, asked. "Why did they wait until he got to his car where there could be a potential danger?"
He noted that since the authorities had been watching Smith's social media videos, they would have seen that Smith had mentioned mental struggles and being upset about facing a four-year prison term for his gun case.
"That should alert them to proceed with caution: 'Hey look, this guy is probably going to react some type of way,' " Kidale Smith said. "So coming up screaming at him, that's not going to help."
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210