Denver DA finds shooting of armed, fleeing 17-year-old to be legally justified

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Denver police lights on Aug. 31, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A Denver police officer who shot a 17-year-old carjacking suspect as the suspect fled was legally justified, the Denver District Attorney's Office found.

The shooting occurred on Aug. 16, around 4:15 p.m., in an alley behind the Denver Community Credit Union at 12th Avenue and Federal Boulevard.

Denver police Corporal Jeff Heinis followed a Volvo that had been reported stolen two days earlier in Arapahoe County into the parking lot of the credit union, according to a decision letter from the DA's office. The owner of the car had reported at the time that the young men who stole his car were armed and racked their guns as they approached the vehicle. Heinis was warned over the radio that the occupants might be armed.

Three people got out of the vehicle as Heinis approached, according the letter, and ran south along a chain link fence that separated the parking lot from the alley. One of the people, the driver of the Volvo, was carrying a handgun.

This is how Heinis described his thought process to investigators:

I know this area pretty well and I could see the other two are going up over the fence. And, I know that if he goes up over the fence, there's going to be a big alley there. At the end of the alley is Tenth Avenue which is kind of a busy street. There's an RTD bus stop there that's always got people at it. There's a body shop there that the garage door is usually -- or the door is usually open -- and there's people hanging out, out there, and there's usually people walking back and forth, you know, across that alley. So I didn't want that to be my backdrop in case I had to get involved in anything with him. So, I decided at that point I didn't want him to be able to get into that alley or car jack another vehicle or run into a house. There's also a neighborhood right back there. I decided to fire shots at him to stop him from doing that. I considered him a very imminent threat to everybody in the area, including myself.

Heinis fired 12 shots and hit the suspect -- a 17-year-old identified in the report only as LAJ -- once in the ankle. The shot broke the bone.

Investigators recovered a loaded .45-caliber handgun near LAJ. There was no bullet in the chamber. They also found two other handguns, both stolen, in the vehicle, according to the report.

According to report, LAJ has charged with felony motor vehicle theft, menacing and possession of a weapon by a previous offender. He pleaded guilty earlier this month to menacing and committed to the Division of Youth Corrections for a minimum of one year and a maximum of two years. This was the sixth time he was adjudicated a juvenile delinquent.

Colorado law allows officers to use force to stop a suspect from escaping, particularly if that suspect might pose a threat. Under that provision, District Attorney Mitch Morrissey found that a jury most likely would not find Heinis to have violated the law by using force.

"Some may wonder if it was appropriate to shoot LAJ while he was fleeing," Morrissey wrote. "However, in this factual setting there was no other option available for Corporal Heinis to successfully prevent LAJ’s escape and to arrest him. The only other option was for Heinis to use no physical force, to let LAJ escape, and to hope he would be apprehended later without having caused harm to anyone. Given the facts of this case, I believe a Denver jury that follows the law as written in C.R.S. 18-7-707 would not find beyond a reasonable doubt that the decision by Heinis to fire his weapon was unreasonable or inappropriate."

Denver police have been involved in nine shootings of suspects this year. Investigations remain pending in three of the shootings. The other six have been found to be justified.

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