Cincinnati officials expect renewed unrest during the trial of Ray Tensing, whose killing of an unarmed black man has been called ‘senseless’
The former University of Cincinnati police officer who fatally shot Samuel DuBoseduring a traffic stop for a missing license plate will face murder charges this week, as city officials and activists brace themselves for revived protests.
Ray Tensing shot and killed DuBose, an unarmed African American man, after pulling him over near the campus in July 2015.
An independent report found the shooting occurred as a result of “poor police tactics”, while the Hamilton county prosecutor said the officer’s actions were “senseless” and “asinine”.
Jury selection starts Tuesday in Tensing’s trial, with a rigorous process to whittle down a pool of 234 men and women to a few unbiased jurors. But Tensing’s lawyer, Stewart Mathews, says he is still waiting for the judge to rule on his motion to move the trial out of the city, where he doesn’t believe Tensing can get an unbiased trial.
Last summer, after the incident, residents protested for several days, with some arrests. And activists have mobilized to prepare to protest the trial.
Once a jury is seated, prosecutors are expected to rely heavily on a 28-minute video that shows Tensing firing a single gunshot point-blank to the head of DuBose, after a relatively calm exchange between the two quickly turned violent.
How video of the incident will play into the jury’s decision-making process is key, said Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University.
He said this is one of several incidents in the past two years that has resulted in an officer being charged with murder solely because of a video recording.
“In each of these cases it appears that officers involved in on-duty shootings (1) often act in ways inconsistent with their law enforcement training, and (2) sometimes give statements after the shootings that are inconsistent with the video evidence,” Stinson said in an email. “That is what happened in the Tensing case.”
But Stinson said jurors tend to be reluctant to convict a police officer of murder.
“You can never predict what a jury is going to do when deliberating behind closed doors, but is does seem that juries are not willing to second-guess the split-second life-or-death decisions of a police officer when involved in a violent street encounter,” Stinson said. “They realize that policing is violent, and they are often willing to give the benefit of doubt to the officer who is on trial.”
Mathews has repeatedly said that Tensing feared for his life and thought he was being dragged by DuBose’s car. Two responding officers appeared to corroborate Tensing’s story on video footage later released, but Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters declined to charge the pair, saying they were “truthful and honest about what happened and no charges are warranted”.
Deters took a different view of Tensing. In his announcement to indict the officer, the prosecutor said that video footage wholly contradicted his account of being dragged by DuBose’s vehicle.
“If you slow down this tape, you see what happened,” Deters said last summer. “It is a very short period of time from when this car just slowly starts rolling that this gun is out and he’s shot in the head.” He added: “I think he was making an excuse for a purposeful killing of another person.”
Mathews said he expected to call Tensing to testify.
“He has an absolute right to testify and describe his version of what occurred,” Mathews said.
Among the disputes being resolved by the judge is whether to allow evidence of DuBose’s numerous run-ins with police – he has been charged more than 70 times for nonviolent crimes.
Mark O’Mara, an attorney who represented the DuBose family as it obtained a $5.3m settlement from the university this year, argued that the evidence would be irrelevant since Tensing wasn’t aware of his record, and it would be “attacking the victim of the crime”.
“My hope is that we’ll truly try the case on the facts of what happened that day and that alone,” O’Mara said.
He also pointed to Tensing’s own record as problematic. Records from the university show Tensing led the police department in number of stops and arrests, and 80% of the tickets he wrote were for black people.
O’Mara said the DuBose family has been “pensive” in the run-up to the trial.
“They’re glad that it’s finally come to task, that he’s going to be held responsible,” he said. “But they are concerned. There’ve been a lot of cases of shootings where the people who did the shooting were not held responsible.”
In order to convict Tensing, jurors would have to determine the shooting was unjustified and that the officer didn’t act in self-defense. O’Mara argues that even an interpretation of the video that is charitable to Tensing doesn’t meet that standard.
“Traditionally, you normally see a cop who at least alleges some justification for his use of force,” O’Mara said. “And in this case, you don’t see any. You see, in the light most favorable to Tensing, Sam is starting the car, maybe with the thought in Tensing’s mind that he was going to try and get away.”
“That event were it to happen is absolutely not a justification for use of deadly force under any state’s law, there’s just not,” he said.
Officials are also on high alert to prevent violence from breaking out, as it happened in 2001, following the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by Cincinnati police. The city has met with numerous civil rights and faith-based groups in recent weeks.
“We will be trying to establish a sense of calm in the city,” Cincinnati city manager Harry Black said.