Before Portland Police Officer Samson Ajir told a grand jury he felt his life was in danger as he fatally shot a homeless man in the midst of an apparent mental health crisis, he had some explaining to do.
The prosecutor running the show first wanted to emphasize to the seven grand jurors—who’d soon clear Ajir of legal wrongdoing—that the Portland officer was a family man.
Deputy District Attorney Brian Davidson asked the 32-year-old Ajir about his hometown in Idaho, and if he still has family there. He then emphasized Ajir’s role as a husband and father.
“Are you married?” the prosecutor asked, according to transcripts released last week.
“And how long have you been married?”
“Almost seven years.”
“Two little ones,” Ajir responded. “I got a three-year-old and a one-year-old daughter.”
“Two girls, or—”
“A one- and a three-year-old?” the prosecutor stressed. Ajir nodded. “Terrific.”
These were not details asked of the 16 witnesses who testified before the officer.
Davidson moved on to questions more typically asked of cops on the grand jury witness stand—covering Ajir’s law enforcement training, his duty assignments, and what happened on May 10, the day he fatally shot 24-year-old Terrell Johnson. The grand jury, tasked with determining if there was probable cause that a crime was committed, returned a “no true bill.” The shooting was legally justified.
The special inquiry into Ajir’s family life wasn’t the first such incident this year. Davidson also ran a grand jury investigation into the conduct of two Portland police officers who in February shot an apparently suicidal man named Don Perkins, who’d menaced police with a fake gun.
Like Ajir, the two officers are married and have young kids. And as with Ajir, Davidson emphasized their marriages and children. Again, he didn’t inquire about those things with any other witnesses.
It’s entirely likely that Ajir would have been exonerated even without the inquiries into his family life. Evidence suggested that Johnson swung a box cutter at the officer at fairly close range, following a disturbance at an East Portland MAX station.
But for some, the handling of the case raises questions about special treatment for cops, who essentially never face criminal charges following shootings.
Davidson tells the Mercury he emphasizes officers’ family lives to make a connection with them.
“There’s nothing unusual about that,” he says. “Primarily, it helps establish a certain level of rapport between the person asking the question and the person answering. If you’re just facts and only the facts [of the shooting], and you don’t spend some time establishing a little bit of rapport between yourself and the person you’re asking questions of, I think it’s detrimental to the process.”
Does that amount to special treatment? Almost certainly, experts say—but not unexpectedly.
All police shootings in Portland go to a grand jury, regardless of the details, while prosecutors only bring cases against civilians when they’re reasonably sure they’ll get an indictment.
And they’re very successful at this. On the federal level, for example, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics says grand juries declined to return an indictment in only 11 out of 162,000 cases brought forward in 2010.
“It wouldn’t be surprising that a prosecutor would treat a police shooting—when they think it was a righteous shoot—differently from how they they’d treat a case before the grand jury hoping to persuade them to return an indictment,” explains Andrew D. Leipold, a University of Illinois law professor who has conducted extensive research on grand juries nationwide. “Frankly, if a prosecutor wants to get an indictment, or doesn’t want to get an indictment, the number of times the grand jury is going to go sideways and disagree with a prosecutor tends to be very small.”
It’s not just family chatter that raises questions. A local defense attorney tells the Mercury there’s another fishy aspect of the grand jury process: that a sergeant in the PPB’s training division has been called to testify on behalf of officers—his colleagues—despite not being on the scene of the shootings, vouching that officers’ actions are within bureau policy and consistent with their training.
During the grand jury investigation on Ajir, Davidson asked PPB Sgt. Derrick Foxworth: “What are your thoughts on whether Officer Ajir’s actions in that encounter comported with training policy of the Portland Police Bureau?”
Foxworth responded: “Certainly. And, again, the short answer is yes, it does—it is consistent with PPB policy.”
Davidson says police directives are written in line with state law, so that if a cop obeys internal rules, it’s an indicator they’re also obeying the law. But Foxworth’s testimony raises concerns for the local defense attorney who reviewed the transcript (and requested not to be named|
“The grand jury decides what the evidence shows,” and it’s not for someone else to decide whether a crime occurred or if policy was broken or not, the attorney said. “Otherwise, every freaking trial would be legal experts. Hell, I’d put on other lawyers as witnesses and ask them: ‘Based on your review of the evidence, is my client guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of a crime?’”
Regardless, it’s unlikely Ajir would have been indicted, says Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who’s now a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“The prosecutor sets the tone with how it goes in, but it usually revolves around the officer,” O’Donnell says. “He needs to articulate a fear that he could be seriously injured or killed, that it’s something he didn’t want to do or chose to do—it’s something he had to do given the situation. That’s powerful test-imony.”
Ajir, who is assigned to the multi-jurisdictional Transit Unit, killed Johnson after a brief foot chase near the Flavel Street MAX station on May 10. In his June 22 grand jury testimony, the officer recounted shooting Johnson three times while falling backward after tripping on a curb. He said he feared for his safety, as Johnson made swipes at him with a folding box cutter (which Ajir referred to as a “slasher”).
Police were originally called to the scene after Johnson asked a group of people for a cigarette, then chased a teen who didn’t give him one. In the grand jury, Davidson also emphasized that Johnson was seen on security footage chasing a man on a MAX train the day before. He was wearing the same clothes and holding the same blade when he confronted Ajir, Davidson says.
“Another step or two and he would have been able to slash me and been right on top of me,” Ajir, father and husband, testified.
“Were you afraid for your life?” Davidson asked.
“Absolutely.... Yes. I thought I was going to get killed.”