Richmond’s top prosecutor says he will not pursue criminal charges against the city police officer who shot and killed Marcus-David Peters on Interstate 95/64 this spring.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring said in a report released Friday morning that Peters’ death was “an act of justifiable homicide.” The announcement comes a little more than a month after the Richmond Police Department handed over its investigation into the shooting for his review.
Peters, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher with no criminal history who had graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2016, was unarmed and naked when he was shot on May 14 by Richmond officer Michael Nyantakyi. The Henrico County resident died early the next day.
Peters’ sister, Princess Blanding, held a protest Friday afternoon outside the John Marshall Courts Building, where Herring works, saying she was “disgusted and disappointed” with the decision. She called Herring’s determination “a career-ending decision” and called for the termination of Nyantakyi.
“I don’t know how it could have been done any differently by the officer,” Herring said at a news conference Friday morning after releasing the report. “The officer couldn’t stand by and let Mr. Peters continue to break down on 95.”
While acknowledging that Peters’ mental state and the fact that he had no weapon or clothes were mitigating factors, Herring said that “the use of deadly force was reasonable and necessary.”
“The officer reasonably regarded Mr. Peters as a direct threat to his life and to the safety of those around him,” according to the report, co-written by Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney LaToya H. Croxton. “A reasonable officer in this scenario would have believed that Peters was capable of overcoming the officer, taking control of the firearm and using it to harm the officer and others. Thus, the totality of the circumstances tragically warranted the use of lethal force.”
His family has said Peters was having a mental health crisis and should not have been shot. The report contradicts the family’s earlier accounts that Peters hadn’t been acting erratically leading up to the incident and that he wasn’t under the influence of drugs.
The report details that THC and Ritalin were found in his system. THC is the primary psychoactive component of marijuana, and Ritalin is a stimulant often used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Herring said Peters didn’t have a prescription for Ritalin, nor had he been diagnosed with ADHD. A friend told police he gave Peters the pills, of which he took multiple daily, and a family member admitted disposing of the bottle after his death, the report stated.
Blanding, who has led several protests demanding justice for her brother and police reform, stormed a community meeting hosted by Mayor Levar Stoney in July with a toxicology report that she said she received from the Office of the State Medical Examiner’s Office that indicated no substances were found in his system. The report dated July 2 from NMS Labs in Pennsylvania was attached to the final autopsy provided by the medical examiner and said it “did not reveal any positive findings of toxicological significance.” The lab lists dozens of substances that it tested Peters’ urine for, but Ritalin and THC were not among them.
A separate certificate of analysis from the state Department of Forensic Science revealed the THC and Ritalin in Peters’ liver. That analysis was also dated July 2, though Herring said he received it only on Aug. 14. Fentanyl, a narcotic for severe pain, was also found, according to the state lab, but was likely administered during life-saving efforts at VCU Medical Center after the shooting, according to the report.
Prosecutors also described Peters’ deteriorating mental health, which the report said his family knew about and had expressed concerns about before his death.
“Witness accounts seem to suggest that his decline started one to two weeks prior,” Herring said.
One witness told authorities that the family gathered on Mother’s Day, the day before the shooting, “to express their concerns that he was ‘in over his head.’” Strange behavior had been reported at the Essex County school where Peters taught and Blanding previously worked as an assistant principal, the report stated. Herring said co-workers reported seeing him pacing and distracted at work.
One of Peters’ former students who asked not to be named told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that Peters had been distracted after school on the day of the shooting and seemed tired.
Herring said he believed Peters’ behavior, which he and the family described as out of character, was the result of an adverse reaction to the drugs. Herring also said that whether or not Peters was high had “little bearing on the ultimate issue.”
On Friday, Blanding denied any knowledge of drug use by her brother, but she said she had heard rumors.
She said that Herring, like Police Chief Alfred Durham and Mayor Stoney, were trying to find a way to “justify this killing” and to “dehumanize him and demonize him.” She said police shootings of unarmed black men are a national and systemic issue, and those in power are part of the problem. Herring, Durham and Stoney are all black.
“There is no justification for why Marcus is not here right now,” Blanding said at the protest she held Friday. “We will fight to see that this doesn’t happen again.”
Herring’s 17-page analysis of Peters’ shooting went into unusual detail. Typically, the prosecutor’s office doesn’t make public its determinations into an officer-involved shooting, unless asked by members of the media.
Herring said he has published a hard-copy report in one other case: the 2013 death of Linwood R. Lambert Jr., a Richmond man who died after being repeatedly shocked with a stun gun by South Boston police officers. Herring was appointed to assist Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Quackenbush Martin. The prosecutors did not recommend charges in that case.
“If it’s something that the public is concerned about or focused on, or more importantly, has policy implications, then we’ll do a report,” Herring said. “When people are suggesting cover-ups and conspiracies, I think that opens the door to a response that really clarifies not only was there no cover-up or conspiracy on our part, but maybe folks haven’t been as forthcoming as they could have been.”
Peters is one of four people shot by a Richmond police officer this year, and he was the only fatality. Last year, Richmond police shot and killed two men; one was black, the other was white. Both were armed.
The day of the shooting, Peters, who taught biology at Essex High School in Tappahannock, arrived at his Henrico apartment about 4:30 p.m. There, he changed clothes and smoked marijuana, according to a witness in the report. He left about a half hour later for The Jefferson Hotel, where he worked as a part-time security guard.
He arrived in a blue Mercury Grand Marquis around 5:22 p.m. Footage from the hotel showed him entering the lobby through the front door, where he removed his shirt. Peters made his way to the security office, where he had a “tense exchange” with another employee, the report said.
“Other witnesses advised that he went into the employee locker room where he could be heard yelling,” the report said. “Mr. Peters is next seen running nude and yelling on W. Franklin Street before getting into his vehicle and driving away from the hotel.”
Surveillance footage from Virginia Commonwealth University showed him traveling west on Main Street, then turning onto Belvidere Street, where Peters rear-ended a vehicle. This is where Nyantakyi first saw Peters. The officer pursued him north on Belvidere, which turns into Chamberlayne Avenue, and onto the interstate ramp, where Peters hit two other cars before crashing into some brush.
In footage from Nyantakyi’s body-worn camera, Peters was naked when he exited his car. He climbed, feet first, out of the driver’s-side window — the door was operable, the report found — and was screaming nonsensically as he ran to the highway. He was struck by a passing car, causing him to fall into one of the lanes, where he rolled around and made “snow angels,” the report said and footage showed.
When Peters noticed Nyantakyi nearby, Peters threatened to kill the officer and charged at him, screaming expletives.
After a warning, Nyantakyi deployed his Taser. Only one prong hit Peters, rendering the device ineffective, police said. Nyantakyi then shot Peters twice in the abdomen.
Nyantakyi was the only Richmond police officer at the scene. He called for backup and acknowledged Peters seemed to be experiencing a mental health crisis, the report said.
In Nyantakyi’s body-worn camera video, a Virginia State Police trooper can be seen arriving, but he’s on the other side of the interstate. The trooper doesn’t come back into the frame until after the shooting.
“The use of deadly force was reasonable and necessary given the unique circumstances of the encounter,” the report said. “Mr. Peters’ altered mental state, his nudity and the fact that he was unarmed are all mitigating factors. However, there should be little question that the officer reasonably feared that Mr. Peters’ aggression and apparent insensitivity to pain foreclosed lesser interventions and therefore constituted an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.”
The family had raised questions previously after the autopsy revealed Peters had been shot a third time. According to the report, which included the autopsy, Peters suffered two gunshot wounds to the abdomen and a third “through-and-through” wound to the left forearm.
Herring said he believes a round traveled through Peters’ arm and into his abdomen. Only two shell casings were found at the scene, and the officer’s gun was inspected and had been fired twice, the report said.
On July 24, the police department’s Force Investigation Team prepared a report that included witness statements and forensic evidence, as well as security camera videos and footage from the body-worn camera, which were made public two weeks after the shooting. The report was reviewed by Herring in making his determination.
Herring has brought charges against one city police officer for his actions during an on-duty shooting since taking office in 2006. That year, Herring charged Michael Couture with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Santanna Olavarria during a confrontation after a traffic stop. Couture resigned under pressure, and was later convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to a $2,500 fine and no jail time.
With Herring’s ruling, the police department will begin its internal investigation into whether any departmental action should be taken against Nyantakyi.
Nyantakyi has been on administrative leave since the shooting. The department said Friday that he will now be placed in an administrative assignment in a non-public contact position while the internal investigation is completed. He has 10 years of experience with the department and, like Peters, is black.
Chief Durham — who has been tight-lipped since the shooting, saying he feared influencing Herring’s or a potential jury’s decision — also promised to hold a community meeting about the department’s training in defensive tactics, use of force and crisis intervention.
Mayor Stoney said he met with Peters’ family several weeks ago regarding their recommendations for changes in policies and procedures. He released a statement Friday evening saying he remains “committed to assessing these protocols, and will continue working to ensure the safety and well-being of those who visit, live and work in our city.”
No date or time has yet been set for the community meeting.