Two former Yellowstone County Sheriff’s deputies did not act criminally in the shooting death of Loren Simpson last winter, a jury ruled unanimously Wednesday following a two-day coroner’s inquest.
Jason Robinson and Christopher Rudolph were found justified in killing 28-year-old Simpson on Jan. 8, 2015, as Simpson approached them on White Buffalo Road in Huntley driving a Ford Explorer that had been reported stolen.
Robinson was training Rudolph who had been a deputy less than five months. Both men resigned from the sheriff’s office five days after the shooting.
After the verdict, the Simpson family's attorney Nathan Wagner said they respected the jury's verdict, but believed the civil case pending against Yellowstone County in federal court still has merit.
"We are confident that the outcome will be different when we are allowed to present the rest of the evidence and cross examine the witnesses at the civil trial," Wagner said. "We look forward to the opportunity to continue pursuing justice for the family."
Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said he was glad for the jury's verdict but could not comment on matters related to the resignation of both deputies due to the active litigation.
The inquest, which began Tuesday, was called to determine whether the deputies acted criminally in the shooting. Even with the jury’s finding, a decision on any criminal charges will be up to County Attorney Scott Twito.
The dash-cam video clearly shows the stolen Ford Explorer approaching the deputies standing near the patrol car they had parked to partially block the road.
The deputies yell several times for the driver to stop. “Shut it down,” one of them yells. “Right now,” yells the other.
The driver veers off the road away from the deputies and into the deep snow as the deputies open fire using a shotgun and an AR-15 rifle.
The deputies fired for five seconds. Use-of-force expert and former FBI special Agent Brian Kensel said the deputies fired a total of 54 projectiles in that span.
In the days after the shooting, the deputies told investigators they felt threatened by the Explorer coming toward them.
Robinson testified Wednesday the angle of the patrol car's dash-cam shows a distorted perception of the incident.
A teenage witness to the shooting death of Loren Simpson testified Tuesday the Ford Explorer…
Robinson had tears in his eyes as he described the incident. He said he saw snow kick off the Explorer’s back tires, believing it was accelerating.
"I saw the front wheels turn in my direction,” Robinson said. “At that point, I knew he didn’t care he was going through me and he was going to kill me."
Robinson said he fired 18 rounds from his AR-15.
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Two of those rounds hit Simpson, one of them through the Explorer’s back window and into the back of Simpson’s head.
The Explorer stopped in the deep snow next to the road. Robinson said he reached for another shell magazine and realized he didn't have one. He then drew his service pistol and approached the car, yelling for the driver to show his hands.
At this point, Robinson said he still didn't know who was in the Explorer.
"I reached the car. I could see that he was slunk forward. He had blue gloves on his hands. They were on his lap. I could see he wasn’t breathing," Robinson said. "It was a cold day and we could all see our breath. There was nothing coming."
From the moment Simpson was perceived as a threat, to the moment deputies opened fire was a "blink" of time, Robinson said.
Robinson was training Rudolph that day, even though he was not certified for that training. Rudolph said he suggested they bring out their long guns as they drove behind the Ford Explorer. They knew they were going to be conducting a high-risk felony stop, Rudolph said.
Rudolph said the two formed a plan fast as they watched the Explorer approach.
They had called for back-up from other law enforcement officers, but that assistance hadn’t arrived yet, Rudolph testified. He said he was afraid if he tried to back up their patrol car, they would get stuck in the snow. The deputies followed their training, Rudolph said.
"We were going to stop that vehicle," he said.
The two got out their patrol car and walked toward the approaching car, raising their weapons.
In the video, Robinson appears to cross in front of Rudolph at one point, with Rudolph appearing to lower his gun and raise it again to continue firing.
Simpson was shot once with a slug from the shotgun and twice with the rifle. The rifle caused the fatal shot, striking Simpson through the back of the head and immediately paralyzing him, according to Thomas Bennett, associate medical examiner for the Montana and Wyoming, who testified Tuesday.
A juror Wednesday asked if Robinson would have done anything different that day if he could.
"Yeah," Robinson said. "I would have stayed home that day."
Kensel, the use-of-force expert, testified the deputies were justified in their actions. He said the only thing that matters in the eyes of the law is that the deputies felt threatened in the moments before they pulled the trigger. Any actions leading up to that moment are a “smoke screen” distracting them from the matter at hand.
Ed Zink, Yellowstone County Deputy Chief of Criminal Litigation, said policing in 2016 is more difficult than it's ever been and this is being reflected not just in Billings and Yellowstone County but nationwide.