DA: No charges against police in Ocampo shooting

Feb. 06, 2014 @ 05:41 PM

Prosecutors won’t seek criminal charges against Durham police in last summer’s fatal shooting of a Latino man during a confrontation involving a knife, Durham County District Attorney Leon Stanback said Thursday.

Stanback said in a press release that his office had investigated the July 27 death of Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo and found “no probable cause to charge a crime.”

The decision got reaction from Durham attorney Scott Holmes, who represents the Ocampo family.

“The family is saddened, they are frustrated, they are angry,” Holmes said at a media briefing at N.C. Central University School of Law. “They wonder why it has taken so long to investigate the case. And they feel very keenly the difference in treatment of folks who have privilege and those who don’t.”

Ocampo’s death was one of three Durham police officer-involved gunshot deaths last year that rocked the city.

Ocampo, 33, was shot four times by Durham officer R.S. Mbuthia the morning of July 27 in the 800 block of Park Avenue in East Durham after police responded to a call and found a man cut with a broken bottle.

Police said Ocampo approached officers with a knife in his hand and repeatedly ignored commands to drop it. That’s when the officer shot him in the head, chest and stomach.

But in an interview after the shooting, Ocampo’s nephew, 18-year-old Walter Cardona, said witnesses told him that his uncle had wrapped the knife in a bandana or something similar and was trying to give it to the officer – handle first.

“Police could have used a Taser or Mace,” Cardona said, “because there were three cops against one person, and he was holding the blade. He wasn’t attacking them or anything. I think they overreacted with four shots.”

Questions also were raised about whether Ocampo, a native of Honduras, understood the officer’s orders.

Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez said at the time that Ocampo failed to follow the officer’s orders to raise his hands, and instead advanced with the knife.

In an interview Thursday, Lopez said his department can now complete its internal inquiry into the death.

He said his internal affairs officers will review the State Bureau of Investigation findings in the case “and compare it to what we have learned internally.”

Lopez said Mbuthia remains on administrative duty with pay and “comes to work every day.”

“We extend our sympathies to the Ocampo family during this difficult time,” Lopez said.

At Thursday’s briefing, attorney Holmes said he’d like Lopez and city officials to participate in a “reconciliation process that would help heal the family, hold the officer and department accountable and give the community an opportunity to address the deeper structural problems” in the Police Department.

“The Durham police and the officer need to be held accountable for the death of Jose Ocampo,” Holmes said in a statement. “Mr. Ocampo did not present a deadly threat when the officer used excessive force shooting him in the head. In case after case, the Durham police are too quick to escalate situations with excessive force.”

Holmes said that with “a more measured approach, Jose would be alive today. In the shadow of concerns about racial profiling and the unequal application of our laws for the poor and people of color in our community, the city should follow the lead of other cities and explore a restorative justice approach to help heal the Ocampo family’s loss and the systemic fractures within our community.”

Holmes said a “truth and reconciliation process” would bring “those who have been harmed together with the person who caused the harm, and also the community, in a way that facilitates the truth about what happened, and aims toward a reconciliation.”

Holmes, an assistant professor and supervising attorney for the Civil Litigation Clinic at NCCU, said a wrongful-death suit might be brought against the Police Department in Ocampo’s death.

“We’ve been working hard in the clinic to investigate the case and to explore potential civil litigation for a wrongful death and excessive force based on a violation of [Ocampo’s] constitutional rights,” he said.

Ocampo was from a family of modest means, and family members who came to Durham from Arizona last summer had to borrow money to pay for shipping his body to Honduras for the funeral.

The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham stepped in with a donation and helped the family grieve.

Marcia Owen, the coalition’s executive director, said the family was shocked by Ocampo’s death but never appeared bitter.

“I never saw the family get angry, but I saw them cry a lot,” Owen said. “They’re not mean, vindictive people. They’re very kind and good, good people. I think they were exceedingly perplexed by [his death]. They just never in a million years thought this would happen.”