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Monday, December 3, 2012

Fulton DA: MARTA officer was 'justified' in shooting death of Joetavius Stafford

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard says investigation included interviews with more than 40 witnesses, review of DNA results, expert analysis
  • Joeff Davis/CL File
  • Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard says investigation included interviews with more than 40 witnesses, review of DNA results, expert analysis
A MARTA Police officer's use of deadly force that resulted in the death of a 19-year-old man near the Vine City transit station in Oct. 2011 was "justified," according to an investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard.

On Oct. 15, 2011, MARTA Officer Robert Waldo responded to a call about a fight outside the Vine City MARTA station near the Georgia Dome, where a series of high-school football games were being played. The officer fired several shots at Joetavius Stafford, who earlier had attended the game, and struck him three times - once in the chest and twice in the back.

The killing sparked protests and outrage, as some witnesses claimed Stafford was shot in the back while lying on the ground. According to Howard's investigation, "[i]ntense interviews of several witnesses established that this assertion was simply untrue." In addition, the DA's office says, an autopsy "concluded that Stafford was likely in an upright position when the Officer's shots were fired."

In July, Stafford's family sued Waldo and MARTA for wrongful death.

The DA's office says its investigation consisted of "multiple interviews with more than 40 witnesses, a thorough review of key DNA and other scientific results, as well as expert analysis from an independent board-certified crime scene reconstructionist and blood spatter engineer."

The long statement from Howard's office about the investigation's findings begins below and continues after the jump. We'll update when we hear word from others involved in the dispute.

An examination of the series of events that occurred immediately prior to the shooting death of Joetavius Stafford provides key insight into the officer's ultimate use of deadly force. Approximately three hours before the officer-involved shooting, Joetavius Stafford and a group of friends arrived at the Georgia Dome for a local high school football game. Stafford and his group were eventually kicked out of the facility after engaging in a wild chair and fist-throwing fight with another group of men. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) discovered through phone records that just before the fight in the Dome began, Stafford asked another friend to bring him a weapon. After Stafford was expelled by Dome security, a group of three men including Stafford's brother Rodney, arrived in an area across the street from the Dome in Joetavious Stafford's own vehicle with the handgun he requested and other weapons.

Prior to the arrival of Stafford's group with the weapons, Stafford was embroiled in another fight outside of the Dome in the parking lot of the nearby Vine City MARTA Station. Stafford removed his shirt and was pummeling another man with his fists when a female MARTA police officer, responding to a "fight" call, attempted to gain physical control of Stafford in an effort to halt his violent assault upon the unknown male. The officer swung her police baton at Stafford but failed to make contact. The officer then pepper-sprayed Stafford with no apparent success. Seconds later, undeterred by the officer's efforts, Stafford disengaged from the attack on the male victim and ran to his vehicle. He retrieved a nine millimeter handgun from the car and then fired two shots into the crowd gathered in the parking lot.

Officer Robert Waldo, another MARTA Officer responding to the "fight" call, witnessed Stafford firing shots into the crowd and immediately ordered him to "freeze." Stafford ignored the officer's command and ran towards the rear of the MARTA Station. Officer Waldo gave chase but momentarily lost sight of Stafford. When the officer spotted Stafford again, he ordered him to "Stop! Drop the weapon and get on the ground!" Stafford instead turned towards Officer Waldo, who, believing Stafford was still armed, fired four shots at him, striking him three times. Stafford was struck once in the chest and twice in the back as the force of the gunfire spun his body around.

A short distance from Stafford's body beneath a bush, MARTA Officers discovered the nine millimeter handgun Officer Waldo had witnessed Stafford firing into the crowd prior to being shot. A friend of Joetavius Stafford, who was present during the series of events that evening, confirmed to investigators that the nine millimeter weapon belonged to Stafford, was in Stafford's possession that night and was eventually tossed under a bush. DNA samples were extracted from the weapon by the GBI's Division of Forensic Sciences which concluded, "With a reasonable scientific certainty, it can be concluded that the DNA obtained from the firearm (magazine) from the [Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol..] which matches Joetavius Stafford orginated from him or his identical sibling."

Under Georgia law, Officer Waldo was authorized to arrest Stafford as soon as he observed him shooting into the crowd. Secondly, Stafford, upon ignoring the officer's commands and then leaving the scene after firing shots into the crowd, became what is termed a 'fleeing felon'. Georgia law allows officers to use 'deadly force' to apprehend fleeing felons, particularly when there is a clear and present danger to the public. Additionally, when Officer Waldo ordered Stafford to drop his weapon and Stafford instead turned- in what the Officer felt was an attempt to cause him deadly harm with the same firearm Joetavius Stafford had just fired into the crowd- Officer Waldo was justified under Georgia law to use deadly force to defend himself at that time.

Following the incident, a few statements emerged claiming Stafford was shot in the back while lying helplessly on the ground. Intense interviews of several witnesses established that this assertion was simply untrue. Critical testimony regarding the shooting was provided by an independent female witness who was standing a short distance away from Joetavius Stafford when he was shot by Officer Waldo. This witness states that Stafford was standing when he was shot. The witness also demonstrated for DA Investigators that Stafford's hands were near his waist at the time the shots were fired. The Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office conducted an autopsy upon Joetavius Stafford's body and concluded that Stafford was likely in an upright position when the Officer's shots were fired.

The District Attorney's Office submitted the Medical Examiner's autopsy report along with other medical findings, statements of witnesses and crime scene information to an independent, board-certified crime scene reconstructionist for review. "We believe it is appropriate in cases of this nature to receive the benefit of expert analysis outside of our jurisdiction to avoid the perception of undue influence from any of the parties involved," says District Attorney Paul L. Howard, Jr. The reconstructionist also concluded, "The angles of the gunshot wounds to Joetavius Stafford's body are consistent with him being in an upright position when the shots were fired."

Having determined that the use of force against Joetavius Stafford was justified, the Fulton County District Attorney's Office will not pursue charges against Officer Robert Waldo, effectively closing the case.

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