Tue, Sep 26, 2023 6:31 PM
By MARYCLAIRE DALE, Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A judge dismissed murder and other charges Tuesday against a Philadelphia police officer who shot and killed a driver through a rolled-up window — a confrontation police initially described as the officer shooting the driver after he lunged at him with a knife outside the car.
Municipal Judge Wendy Pew agreed with defense attorneys who argued the officer could have feared for his life because he thought the driver, 27-year-old Eddie Irizarry, had a gun.
Police body camera footage shown at the preliminary hearing of fired Officer Mark Dial showed Irizarry holding a knife near his right leg as police approached his stopped vehicle. The officers had pulled Irizarry over on a residential street after a short pursuit prompted by erratic driving.
The ruling came after a courtroom, packed with police and relatives of Irizarry, watched about 20 minutes of the harrowing video footage. His attorneys argued that Dial acted in self-defense when he fired his weapon at close range shortly after noon on Aug. 14.
Irizarry’s relatives appeared stunned and distraught by Pew’s ruling, which prosecutors plan to appeal. The victim's family members said police should not need to fatally shoot someone just because they speed or act irrationally.
“We are going to continue to fight for justice, because that was wrong,” Irizarry's cousin Aracelis Brown, 28, said in an interview after the hearing. Prosecutors said they will seek to have the murder and other charges reinstated.
Bodycam footage shows Dial shot Irizarry about seven seconds after getting out of a police SUV and walking over to the sedan. He fired a total of six rounds.
Police previously backtracked from their initial statements that Dial shot Irizarry outside the vehicle after he “lunged at” police with a knife. Dial, a five-year member of the force, was suspended after officials said he refused to cooperate with investigators. Police said Dial was fired on Sept. 18.
“You’re sitting here telling me that he was trying to lunge at you. He was not. He was locked in the car. So there was no way that he could get to you guys, and yet you still felt threatened and shot at him,” said Brown, ascribing the judge’s ruling to “favoritism” toward police.
Dial's partner, Officer Michael Morris, said the officers started following Irizarry after he sped past them in a bike lane and rounded a corner. They did not put on their lights and sirens but sent in information about the vehicle. Morris said he was not sure whether they received any information back from police radio.
Morris testified Tuesday that he saw the driver holding a knife with a black metal handle that could have looked like a gun. He said Irizarry started to raise it as Dial approached the car, which had stopped while going the wrong way on the one-way street.
“I screamed that he had a knife,” Morris testified.
Dial, sitting at the defense table, dabbed his eyes with a tissue as prosecutors played bodycam video of the fatal shooting. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner had called the videos from Morris and Dial “crucial evidence" that spoke for itself.
Defense lawyer Brian McMonagle urged Pew to drop all charges, which, in addition to murder, included manslaughter, official oppression and four other counts.
“He is firing while trying to take cover,” McMonagle said in court, stressing that Dial acted in self-defense. He said the charges never should have been filed by Krasner, a longtime civil rights lawyer who has clashed with police since taking office in 2018.
“I agree with you 100%," the judge replied as she threw out the case for lack of evidence.
Dial’s bail had been revoked last week after prosecutors argued the charges made him ineligible for release. He was released later Tuesday, McMonagle said.
Defense lawyers noted that even the detective who had sought a warrant for Dial’s arrest asked that the top charge be voluntary manslaughter, not murder.
City Council Member Kendra Brooks joined relatives in demanding that the case go to trial and voiced concern about seeing yet another video showing a white police officer killing a person of color. Irizarry was a member of the local Puerto Rican community who had moved to Philadelphia from Ponce about seven years ago, according to news reports.
“As we have seen with the killing of Walter Wallace,George Floyd,Breonna Taylor, and many others, incidents like the killing of Eddie Irizarry deepen our fear and trauma and widen the breach of trust between communities of color and the police,” Brooks, who is Black, said in a statement.
Family attorney Shaka Johnson has called the initial police narrative “an intentional misleading of the public” and said he intended to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the officer and the city.
Outgoing Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, who is leaving after three turbulent years to take a transit security job in New York, said the footage “made it very clear that what we initially reported was not actually what happened.”