Three Honolulu police officers will not be tried for their role in an April encounter that killed a teenager and injured his older brother, District Court Judge William Domingo ruled on Wednesday.
“It was a very dangerous situation which was going on,” Domingo said.
The ruling followed several days of preliminary hearing proceedings. Officer Geoffrey Thom was charged with murder for the killing of Iremamber Sykap, the 16-year-old driver of a stolen Honda Civic. Thom shot 10 times through the back windshield, hitting Sykap eight times.
Officer Zackary Ah Nee was charged with attempted murder for shooting and injuring a passenger, Mark Sykap, Iremamber’s brother. Officer Christopher Fredeluces was charged with attempted murder for shooting at Iremamber Sykap, though he missed.
In his ruling, Domingo said he took into consideration the fact that officers were in a pursuit and that the suspects were actively evading arrest, which he considered a “provocation.” He said the video and audio evidence was particularly compelling and illustrated the dynamic situation the officers were facing.
He compared the threat to “a caged animal” and said the danger was “always present.”
“Based on my reading of the evidence, the situation, how quickly everything happened, the responses, the unreasonableness of the prosecutions’ argument that they should take some time to see whether or not there was actually a gun or not – there is no luxury in those kinds of situations,” he said in finding no probable cause for trying the three officers.
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm initiated the preliminary hearing after a grand jury declined to indict the officers. In a brief statement, he said he is “very disappointed” by the ruling and will be holding a press conference on Monday to discuss the case.
After Domingo’s ruling, the officers hugged their attorneys and were met with a friendly crowd of police union supporters outside the courthouse. In prepared statements to the media, the officers thanked community members for their support.
“It is our continued hope that the community can recognize that supporting the officers and understanding their actions can coexist with a feeling of deep sympathy for the loss of the Sykap family,” statements from Fredeluces and Otake said.
State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers President Malcolm Lutu said he was pleased with the ruling.
“It shows that the officers were doing their jobs, that training mattered and they made the right decisions,” he said.
Retired HPD Lt. Alex Garcia, who has helped rally public support for the officers throughout the legal process, said charges never should have been filed in the first place.
“Prosecutor Alm was an excellent deputy prosecutor and U.S. Attorney, (and) he was also a fair and lenient judge,” he said in a statement. “However his judgment as the Honolulu Prosecutor is questionable. This case was not based on facts but on creative innuendoes and racist mainland incidents not applicable here in Hawaii. Prosecutor Alm should consider returning to retirement.”
Across the street from the courthouse, a group of counter-demonstrators was disappointed.
“It’s a very sad commentary on America,” said Fabienne Melchior. “What’s become of us? We’ve lost our soul.”
In a statement, Mayor Rick Blangiardi said he is confident the facts in this case were fully vetted and that the court reached the appropriate conclusion.
“I support our police officers, who face difficult and potentially split second decisions each day they put on their uniform,” he said. “I understand this case was very difficult for everyone involved and I hope our community is able to heal and move forward.”
In several days of preliminary hearings, prosecutor Christopher Van Marter tried to make the case that probable cause existed to take the officers to trial. He argued that no one was in danger at the time that officers opened fire on the stolen Honda Civic the teen was driving.
“Before people start shooting and potentially killing, they have to be sure,” he said. “Otherwise, there is no restraint on police officers or anyone for that matter who is using deadly force.”
Attorneys for the officers argued that they were trying to end a crime spree and that the law allows them to use deadly force when making a felony arrest.
“It’s easy to judge in slow motion what one had to do in haste,” defense attorney Thomas Otake said.
The shooting happened on the evening of Monday, April 5.
Officers had been briefed over the weekend and that morning about a stolen white Honda Civic with Texas plates that was reportedly involved in a purse snatching, a burglary during which suspects brandished guns and other crimes.
“We were talking about that vehicle all weekend,” Lt. Taro Nakamura said on the stand on Wednesday.
Officers, including Thom, Ah Nee and Fredeluces, were warned about the suspects and were told to be careful, Nakamura said.
On the afternoon of April 5, officers spotted the suspect vehicle and initiated a pursuit, attorneys on both sides said.
But the suspects refused to pull over, despite about 20 commands to do so over the officers’ PA system, said Crystal Glendon, Fredeluces’s attorney. Instead, Sykap led police from East Honolulu through residential areas, going 50, 70 and 80 miles per hour and running red lights and stop signs, she said.
Richard Sing, Thom’s attorney, noted that Iremamber Sykap had meth in his system at the time of the shooting and gunshot residue on his hands.
“These suspects were armed, dangerous, and in fact, escalating,” he said.
Van Marter didn’t dispute that the car was connected to alleged crimes nor that suspects tried to evade police.
He said he was focused narrowly on the moments before officers opened fire. He called the situation “a complete and total breakdown in judgement, restraint and discipline.”
From the perspective of each of the three officers, he argued, none of them had a good reason to shoot.
Thom was behind the Honda, off to the side, right before he started shooting, Van Marter said. And the Honda hardly moved at that point, he said, only reversing a few inches for one second.
“He was never in any danger. Ever,” Van Marter said.
Defense attorneys Otake and Sing argued that Thom shot through the Honda’s back windshield to protect Fredeluces, who was on the front driver’s side of the Honda. Sing said his client was practicing “de-escalation” by not shooting sooner.
“Officer Thom fired only after the car started moving toward Officer Fredeluces,” Sing said. “It’s almost obtuse by the prosecution that they can’t see how dangerous this is, how this puts everybody at risk.”
Van Marter made the same argument about Ah Nee, who shot Mark Sykap in the passenger seat.
“Ah Nee, for reasons that are inexplicable, decides to fire four rounds at a car that is going up onto the sidewalk toward the fence and into the canal,” he said. “Nobody was in danger when he did that. Nobody – except the people in the car.”
Otake, Ah Nee’s attorney, argued that it was plausible that Ah Nee saw what appeared to be a firearm because a BB gun was later found on the passenger side floorboard of the Honda.
“You have a right to defend yourself and not get shot,” Otake said.
In Fredeluces’s report after the shooting, he wrote that he shot at Iremamber Sykap because he thought shots were being fired from within the vehicle. In reality, they were coming from his colleague, Thom.
Fredeluces shouldn’t have made assumptions, Van Marter said.
“The statutes actually talk about making reasonable decisions based on adequate information,” he said.
In Van Marter’s telling, officers were driven by a determination to stop the suspects at all costs, even though a sergeant had tried to call off the pursuit.
“They called it off,” he said. “And it was OK to let it go. I don’t know why they feel the need, they’ve got to catch the bad guy. There’s going to be another day, another place, another time and you’ll have a better, safer opportunity. That’s what they could’ve done.”
Throughout the proceedings, Van Marter emphasized the specific locations of officers and the car, with the aid of body camera screenshots. Repeatedly, the defense attorneys countered that officers were generally in a “zone of danger” – a characterization Van Marter took issue with.
“What is (a) zone of danger? It’s ambiguous, undefined, unspecified,” Van Marter said.
Judge Domingo disagreed.
The situation officers were dealing with was not “static,” Domingo said.
“It was not something you can piece together,” he said. “It was ongoing and it never stopped until the car ended in the canal, and that’s the way this court is going to be looking at it … The danger was always present.”
In his ruling, Domingo addressed a topic that hadn’t been raised in court but has been top of mind in public discussions of this case: Sykap’s age and race. The judge said officers did not know about the 16-year-old Micronesian boy’s youth or ethnicity at the time he was killed.
The judge said he considered what a “reasonable person” would think about everything that preceded the shooting and what was going on in the officers’ minds.
“Prosecution says ‘Well, you know, you got to check and find out whether or not something is right first before you react,’” Domingo said. “And I don’t think that’s reasonable.”
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