PORTSMOUTH, Va. – A Portsmouth police officer who shot an armed 18-year-old burglary suspect in the back last year as the teen ran from a home was indicted Thursday on two felony charges.
Officer Jeremy Durocher is charged with aggravated malicious wounding and a related firearms charge, reported The Virginian-Pilot.
According to the report, the crime carries up to life in prison plus three years. The aggravated malicious wounding charge carries a minimum of 20 years in prison, though a judge could suspend part of the term. The firearm charge carries a minimum of three years.
In a statement, Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales said her office presented multiple indictments of various levels of severity to the grand jurors. At the conclusion of their review, they decided on the most serious charges.
Durocher’s attorney, Nicholas Renninger, said the decision to file charges against his client would have a “chilling effect” on police officers in Portsmouth and across the country.
“No police officer can go to work now without looking over their shoulder worried they will be charged simply for doing their job,” he said.
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Moreover, Renninger said he believed prosecutors were only able to secure the indictments by presenting select pieces of evidence to the grand jury.
“We are now waiting for our day in court, when all of the evidence can be presented,” he said.
Morales declined to answer questions Thursday night.
“Our office will not try this case in the media or the court of public opinion. It will be tried in the Portsmouth Circuit Court,” she said.
As a result of the indictment, Durocher’s employment hangs in the balance.
Department spokesman Lt. B.K. Hall declined to comment on Durocher’s status Thursday since it is a personnel matter. The officer has been on administrative duty since the shooting.
Renninger said his client plans to turn himself in to police, but he wasn’t sure when that would happen because it was unclear if warrants had been issued for his arrest. The move could result in him being released immediately on bond, or being held overnight in the Portsmouth City Jail pending a hearing, according to the Pilot.
Police Chief Tonya Chapman said in a statement that while the grand jury’s decision “directly impacts the members of the Portsmouth Police Department, we will allow the criminal justice system to run its course.”
She added that her officers “will continue to faithfully serve our community, remain steadfast in building trust, and continue our double-digit major crimes reduction beyond the 12 percent we’ve already achieved this year.”
Durocher shot Deontrace Ward on Oct 29, 2017, as Ward ran from a burglary in the 1100 block of Tatem Ave.
In a video recorded by Durocher’s department-issued body camera, the officer yells, “He has a gun!” when he first sees Ward running from the home and later tells fellow officers the teen “waved” the firearm at him. Consequently, police found a weapon inside the bottom of Ward’s right pant leg.
Morales stepped aside from Ward’s criminal case in April. A special prosecutor is handling it. This gives her the ability to review evidence against Durocher, who was sworn in as a police officer less than six months before the shooting.
Ward pleaded guilty in June to breaking into the home, stealing some jewelry and illegally possessing a firearm. Under a plea agreement, he was sentenced to six years in prison and ordered to pay $1,496.92 in restitution. Another 25 years are hanging over his head if he violates probation.
In exchange for his plea, the special prosecutor agreed to drop charges that Ward brandished his firearm or assaulted the officer who shot him.
But what if those things occurred? It would clearly have a bearing on Durocher’s actions. After all, if the officer is heard yelling, “He has a gun,” it is reasonable to conclude the weapon was not inside Ward’s pant leg at that time. So where was it?
An attorney for Ward said he plans to file a lawsuit in the coming weeks against Durocher and possibly the city. He said the suit will claim gross negligence and battery.
“The law does not afford police officers the luxury of shooting first and asking questions later,” S.W. Dawson said. “What’s nearly worse, this officer’s explanation of why he did what he did doesn’t match up with the facts.”
Durocher isn’t the first Portsmouth police officer Morales’ office has prosecuted in connection with a shooting.
Stephen Rankin killed 18-year-old William Chapman II on April 22, 2015, while investigating a shoplifting report. Chapman was unarmed.
A grand jury indicted Rankin in September 2015 on one count of first-degree murder and a related firearm charge. Following a jury trial the next year, he was convicted on one count of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 2½ years in prison.
That conviction remains on appeal with the Virginia Supreme Court.
However, unlike the Rankin case, Morales will not personally prosecute Durocher. Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorneys George Bruch and Rhonda Spady will handle the case.