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Cover Story

After the Echo

Forced to kill a suicidal subject, the author found himself snared in a web of legal proceedings and personal guilt.

March 01, 2004  |  by Russ Clagett

No way. Won’t happen. Four million wild horses cannot make me look myself in the eye in the mirror. I barely shave, then get a shower. I decide not to think about it, it’s such a stupid thing, not being able to look yourself in the eye in a mirror.

The department sends me to a shrink. I don’t really have any good things to say about shrinks. But this guy’s OK. His name is Al. He’s a normal-looking guy, and he’s not looking at me like some type of interesting specimen. So we talk.

And he tells me lots of things. He never tells me what to feel, or how I should feel, or any of the things I have come to expect from a shrink. He simply asks how I feel, and what happened, then tries to tell me why I might feel that way.

Then he asks me what I saw in the scope. I thought that was kind of odd. I tell him I saw her head explode. He sort of looks to some faraway place and says, "I know what you mean." He sees the look on my face and then he says, "About 50 pounds and 30 years ago I was a sniper in the Army."

Our talk is almost over when Al asks if there was anything else that happened, or that I wanted to talk about. I think about it for a minute, and I tell him about the mirror thing. Al looks very satisfied to hear that and shakes his head up and down and says, "I was hoping you would say something like that."

Here I am thinking I’m going insane, and he’s happy to hear that I can’t look at myself in the mirror. Al tells me it’s called the “Mark of Cain,” and it tells him I’m a good man. He says normal people with strong values frequently experience it. Taking the life of another person is not easy, and it shouldn’t be.

He tells me I’m not going insane, it’s entirely normal and he was waiting to see if I would mention it. It will go away, he says. And he’s right, it does.

Back On the Job

So the next week I’m back on patrol and already my outlook on some things is starting to change. Things that used to make me crazy just don’t seem to matter anymore. Other things that I took for granted are suddenly much more important.

One of my officers calls me and says a citizen wants to speak with the supervisor because he is not happy. So I drive over to take the complaint and here’s this guy who’s mad because the police are not going to do anything about his neighbor’s dog that comes over in his yard. I listen to him whine for about one minute, then I drive away while he is still boo-hooing.

If this guy had any idea what I thought at that minute, he would never call the police again in his life, no matter what.

The Grand Jury

In some states the prosecutor or the District Attorney reviews the shooting and makes a ruling. If you live in a state like that, go ahead and count your lucky stars.

Everyone else reading this probably knows that if they are involved in a shooting, their case will be presented to the Grand Jury, and they might be called to testify. After all, it’s a homicide, and the Grand Jury has to decide if it was justified or if you need to be charged with murder.

My shooting was April 9, 2000. My Grand Jury appearance was June 1, 2000. I thought that was a long time, but in the real world, it’s not. It is a long time to wait, though, when you’re the one going in there.

It’s hard to explain the emotions involved in waiting to talk to this small group of people that you don’t know, who are going to decide whether or not to try you for murder. Of course you know your shooting was absolutely justified, ethically, morally, and according to law. But that doesn’t mean they’ll agree with you.

While I’m in limbo, waiting to know when the Grand Jury is going to hear my case, I get mail from the District Attorney’s office. At the top it says, "Criminal District Attorney," and goes on to inform me that his office will be presenting my case to the Grand Jury for the listed offense: "MURDER" "FELONY 1" "INTENDS SERIOUS BODILY INJURY/DEATH."

This is a form letter and they’ve already told me it’s only a formality, but no matter what they say, you can’t fully understand how bad it sucks to see your name on something like that…until you read it there.

I walk into the Grand Jury room and stand at the podium. The Grand Jurors are looking at me like I’m something they’ve never seen before.

I figured this is my one chance to tell them what happened and why it was necessary, so I better make it good. I thought I would also give them a little class on SWAT, and the information would help them make a better decision.

The prosecutor asks me to introduce myself, and I do. Then he tells me I am not obligated to be here today, but the Grand Jury wanted to hear from me. Then he reads me my rights and asks if I want to answer questions. I tell him I will be happy to answer any questions they might have.

I begin by telling them a little about SWAT and how it works. Then I tell the story. I’m careful to stress those parts that clearly illustrate the kind of danger my teammates faced and how there was no other option to save a life.

I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job so far. I even use a chair to demonstrate what the suspect did, and what all the angles looked like. I cover it all, man. So when I finish, I think even Ray Charles could see that I did what had to be done.

Imagine my surprise when one of the jurors asks me, "You mean y’all are out there with rifles aimed at people?"

The urge to soil my pants is almost overwhelming. In a few minutes this guy is going to decide whether or not I go to trial for murder, and it looks like he missed the whole point.

Let me digress here and say something else about snipers going to Grand Jury. You see, if an officer stops somebody on traffic and they have a shootout, that officer is a hero. He drew down on somebody who was going to shoot him, and he shot it out with them "fair and square," and won. Just like John Wayne.

People love that guy. The Grand Jury will shake his hand, tell him how glad they are he is out there, and they’ll make him feel good about this crappy part of the job he has to do.

But we snipers are different. We hide. Unless we shoot, no one should ever know we were there. When we do have to fire, the killing stroke comes from afar, unseen, and totally without notice.

Let’s face it, the very idea of someone who is highly trained in precision shooting with a very accurate high-powered rifle, lying concealed in a hidden position, ready to take a life with no hesitation, simply scares most people.

The jurors have an opportunity to ask any last-minute questions, but there are none. I am allowed to leave, and I go home.

Near Tragic Mistake

The Grand Jury was supposed to vote that day, but they didn’t; instead, they passed. That really scared me. Now I’m really stressed. What’s going on? Nobody has any answers.

In July, almost 40 days after my appearance, I get word the Grand Jury finally no billed me. It wasn’t until May of 2001, a whole year after the shooting, that I found out one reason why the Grand Jury took so long to vote and no bill me.

The lead detective on my case made a mistake. She told the jurors the suspect had the gun in her right hand, and had turned around to the right. I told them it was in her left hand, and she had turned around to the left.

If the gun had been in her right hand, I think it would be almost impossible for it to end up where it did after the shooting. No one can dispute where it ended up; we have a picture of that. So if the lead detective, the one responsible for the murder investigation, tells you the gun was in the suspect’s right hand, and the shooter says it was in her left hand, who do you believe?

The Grand jurors just might ask, "Are the police hiding something or are they incompetent?"

No wonder. I would have taken all the time in the world with that decision, too. Meanwhile I’m sitting out there wondering what the problem is. One simple mistake, and there you are. She did have the gun in her right hand, until she put it in her left hand as she turned around.

In all the videotaped interviews, in all the reports and statements, everybody who knew, said the gun was in her left hand when I shot her.

So that’s how close I came to being indicted, fired by my agency, and tried for murder. The media would have beaten me up. I might have lost my house, because without a job it’s hard to make a house payment. I would have been arrested, jailed, and made to post bond, if I could, just like a regular criminal.

And, of course, the trial would have lasted all of one day after they discovered this stupid mistake.

Let me sum up by saying that surviving as a police sniper involves two problems. Problem number one is properly making the shot so an innocent life is saved. Problem number two is surviving everything that comes after that shot. Please trust me when I tell you that problem number two is much tougher than problem number one.

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Tags: Deadly Force, homicides, Miranda Law, Officer Involved Shootings


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