A coroner's jury ruled Wednesday that the shooting of Richard Ramirez by Billings Police Officer Grant Morrison was a noncriminal, justifiable homicide.
Morrison shot Ramirez — who was a passenger, and later was found to be unarmed, in the back seat of a car — three times during an April 14, 2014, traffic stop in an alley off of Fifth Avenue South and State Avenue.
Neither Morrison and his family nor Ramirez's family were in the courtroom when Big Horn County Coroner Terry Bullis announced the jury's decision, although both had been there earlier and filled several rows during the first day of the inquest.
The seven-person jury deliberated for a little more than an hour to conclude the two-day inquest, which featured testimony from police officers, investigators, experts, witnesses and Morrison himself before concluding that Morrison's actions were justified.
"It’s the hardest decision I've ever had to make," Morrison said during his testimony. "I wish I didn't have to make it. I wish I just knew he didn't have a gun, but I couldn't take the risk."
Bullis presided over the inquest.
With his family on one side of the courtroom at the Yellowstone County Courthouse and Ramirez’s loved ones filling two rows on the other, Morrison testified that he was scared for his life when he fatally shot Ramirez, who had been named as the suspect in a robbery and shooting the night before he was killed.
“I shot him. … I thought he was going to kill me,” Morrison said.
The verdict is a recommendation to the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office, which has final say on whether to pursue charges in the case. County Attorney Scott Twito said after the inquest that it is unlikely his office will seek charges.
Morrison said that he had searched for Ramirez in connection with the West End shooting on April 13 and didn’t initially know Ramirez was in the car when he pulled it over the next day on the South Side.
During Wednesday’s testimony, Morrison recounted how, when he pulled over a car on the South Side, he immediately noticed the rear right passenger moving and pushing against the door, as if he was going to get out.
He told the jury that he commanded all four people in the car to put their hands up and they all initially complied, but the man in the back right passenger seat, quickly identified by Morrison as Ramirez, dropped his left hand several times.
Morrison went on to say that he thought Ramirez might be reaching for a gun, especially since he'd been named as the suspect in the previous night's shooting.
After telling Ramirez several times to keep his hands up, even warning that he'd shoot, Morrison said he reached into the car in a last-ditch effort to get Ramirez to put his hands up, with no luck.
"I was getting very scared," Morrison said. "He pulled away from me, and he again did the exact same thing. He shoved his hand down to his side and started jiggling it up and down. I told him I was going to shoot him if he didn't listen to me and put his hands up."
'That ain't right'
Ramirez's mother, Betty Ramirez, said later Wednesday that her family disagrees with the decision and still doesn't understand why her son was shot.
"Richard Ramirez was my son," she said. "He was 38 years old, and Officer Morrison is the one that killed him. He was just a good person, and they didn't have to do that to him."
Family friend Lita Pepion said she believes the Ramirez family felt left out of the inquest proceedings.
"Think they felt the hearing was pretty one-sided and they didn't get the chance to participate," she said.
Betty Ramirez said she would have told the coroner's jury that her son didn't hurt anybody and that he didn't carry weapons. She said she doesn't plan to give up on her son and that the family has been in contact with an attorney about how to proceed.
"That ain't right, the way he died," she said. "I'm going to fight it, I'm going to take it as far as I can get it. I'm not going to give up."
The family and friends plan to hold a vigil on Thursday at 6:30 p.m., beginning at the intersection of Sixth Avenue South and South 33rd Street. They plan to walk from there, which is near Ramirez's parents' home, to the site of the incident.
Reason for action
During questioning, Senior Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Ed Zink, who presented the case, asked Morrison why he didn't wait for backup, use a stun gun or retreat behind the car if he was afraid Ramirez had a gun.
Morrison said seeing the person moving in the back of the car warranted approaching before other officers arrived and that the time it takes to holster his already-drawn gun and draw the Taser, or move to the back of the car, could have meant the difference in life or death.
He said he didn't have a choice because he believed Ramirez was reaching for a gun and that he hopes he would've acted differently had he known Ramirez was unarmed.
"I didn’t have the choice to do that," he said.
Mike McCarthy, a defensive tactics instructor at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy and former Lewis and Clark County sheriff's deputy who reviewed footage of the incident, said that it takes somebody about an eighth of a second to draw and fire a weapon but 1.5 seconds to react to somebody drawing a weapon.
He said that officers, including Morrison, are taught to react to situations, read body language and pay close attention to what suspects' hands are doing.
"People can have mean looks, but mean looks don’t kill," McCarthy said. "Hands kill."
He also echoed statements from previous testimony, as well as dashboard video from Morrison's patrol car, that Morrison commanded the people in the car seven times to put or keep their hands up.
"There is one person in that car that had 100 percent control on all of this, and that was Mr. Ramirez," he said. "Had he complied, we wouldn't be here."
Ramirez was shot three times. Dr. Tom Bennett, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on Ramirez, said the fatal shot hit Ramirez’s shoulder and chest area. That shot also damaged his neck and punctured his right lung.
Bennett also said a toxicology test revealed that when Ramirez died, he had a dose of methamphetamine in his system that could be lethal to some. But that the tests also indicated "chronic use" of meth and suggested he'd built up a higher tolerance, Bennett testified.
Billings Police Chief Rich St. John — who testified earlier Wednesday on the BPD's use-of-force policy — held a somber press conference in his office after the jury's decision was announced.
“There are no winners,” he said. “The Ramirez family lost a son, and our officer’s life will be changed forever.”
Police want to avoid shooting suspects at all costs but sometimes deadly force is necessary, he said.
“The verdict of justified homicide reaffirms that our policy procedure and training is properly aligned with state and federal law,” St. John said.
The shooting and other officer-involved shootings were partly caused by suspects who displayed irrational and violent behavior caused by meth use, he said.
“I hasten to say that if it were not for the methamphetamine nexus, we would not be here today,” he said.
In St. John’s eight-year tenure as chief, there have been five officer-involved shootings. All were ruled justified.
He promised that his department would continue to try to curb the meth problem and asked the Billings community to help police continue their battle.
He also said the police will be internally reviewing and updating their policies if necessary after the shooting board, an administrative review team and a criminal team finish their investigations into the incident.
Morrison is currently assigned as a prescription drug diversion task force officer, working with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
After being taken off paid administrative leave, Morrison went on patrol briefly before he agreed to be placed with the task force.
“Where he’s at right now is a good place, he can do the things that he’s very good at. He’s aggressive, he’s a good investigator and he does good work,” St. John said. “But there is nothing that precludes him from coming back to patrol.”
Emotional video of Morrison stopping the vehicle and shooting Ramirez, as well as of Morrison sobbing on the hood of a patrol car minutes later, was shown Tuesday.
In August 2013, a coroner's jury determined Morrison was justified when he fatally shot Jason James Shaw the previous February. In that incident, Shaw was outside of the vehicle and ignored Morrison’s commands and reached for what was later found to be a BB gun replica of a Walther P99 handgun.