NORFOLK, Va. — Attorneys in Virginia clashed in court on Tuesday over whether a white police officer used excessive force when he shot and killed a mentally ill black man who was holding a knife.
During opening statements for the officer’s manslaughter trial, prosecutor Greg Underwood turned toward the jury holding a cardboard replica of the knife, pointing it downward at his side. He said David Latham made no advances toward Norfolk Officer Michael Edington.
“(Edington) told him to drop the knife four times,” Underwood said. “Less than five or six seconds after he said ‘Drop the knife!’ for the fourth time —boom, boom, boom.”
But lead defense attorney Jeffrey Swartz said that’s not the whole story. Swartz also held the cardboard replica before the jury and said Latham moved it around. Latham also threatened that he was going to hurt “somebody,” Swartz said.
And then crucially, Swartz said, Latham’s foot moved. Latham weighed 273 pounds and was standing above Edington, who was on the porch stairs of a house. The officer had only so much time to stop an attack, Swartz said.
“(Edington) believed (Latham) was going to do exactly what he said he was going to do,” Swartz said.
Edington and Latham came face-to-face after the officer responded to a call about a fight breaking out between Latham, 35, and family members over a bag of potato chips. Latham grabbed a foot-long butcher knife, prompting both his mother and brother to call 911 and flee.
Officers arrived to find Latham, who suffered from schizophrenia, in the doorway clutching the knife.
The trial begins amid vocal protests of fatal police shootings of black men in Oklahoma and North Carolina. It’s also one of several trials in recent years of officers who allegedly used excessive force on duty.
As of Tuesday, Edington is among 77 officers charged with manslaughter or murder since 2005, according to Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
The 77th was Tulsa officer Betty Shelby. She was charged with manslaughter after she fatally shot Terence Crutcher on Sept. 16.
Court documents allege that Shelby “reacted unreasonably by escalating the situation from a confrontation with Mr. Crutcher …. (to) becoming emotionally involved to the point that she over reacted.”
Prosecutors in Norfolk are trying to paint a similar picture of Edington, 27, who served on the force for nearly two years before the shooting.
Underwood said Edington was upset over the death of a fellow officer in the days before the incident. When a police dispatcher asked Edington to respond to Latham’s house, Underwood said the officer told his partner, “I’m sick of people doing this (expletive).”
After Latham was shot, he fled into the kitchen and collapsed to his knees and pressed his hands together.
“David Latham was praying,” Underwood said. “He was talking about Jesus.”