The resolutions of two recently concluded homicide cases — one involving a Black man and the other a white cop — gave us fresh examples of the biases of our criminal justice system, inequities that both reflect and reenforce broader social perspectives.
The results raised key questions: Who gets the benefit of the doubt? Who is to be believed? Who counts?
Charlotte cops arrested Christopher Sims, who is Black, five years ago following the death of his girlfriend’s two-year-old son, A’dan Blackmon, who was also Black.
On June 7, 2017, A’dan’s mother left him in Sims’s care while she went to a job interview. Later that day, Sims brought A’dan to the emergency room with serious injuries. The little boy died the next day.
Law enforcement officers interviewed Sims, who cooperated with their investigation. He denied any wrongdoing and said A’dan fell three times and struck his head. Sims denied abusing A’dan.
The cops didn’t believe Sims. They initially charged him with child abuse. Then, the day after A’dan died, they charged Sims with murder.
A’dan’s autopsy report later noted that someone — presumably Sims, though it’s not clear from news reports — said the little boy had fallen at a park and struck his head. The medical examiner didn’t believe Sims and concluded A’dan died from “inflicted trauma.”
A judge set Sims’s bond at $3.5 million.
Almost a year after A’dan’s death, in March 2018, Assistant District Attorney Glenn Cole, in what the Charlotte Observer described as “a long and emotional argument,” opposed any reduction in Sims’s bond and tried pulling at the court’s heartstrings to get his way: He began his argument by handing Judge Robert Bell a photo of A’dan. The prosecutor shared details about an alleged adult-sized bite mark on A’dan’s arm and the tearing of the tissue connecting the little boy’s gums to his lips and chin. Cole painted a picture of Sims as a monster, alleged his actions “shock the conscience”, and said no child would be safe in his presence.
Judge Bell rejected Cole’s appeal to pathos and reduced Sims’s bond to $300,000. In November 2019, Sims bailed out. (Sims was required to wear an electronic monitor and avoid being in the presence of anyone under the age of eighteen.)
By the time of his release, Sims had spent more than two years behind bars as an accused, but innocent, man.
In August 2022, more than five years after A’dan’s death, the case against Christopher Sims went to court. The jury acquitted him following a nearly-three-week trial.
After the twelve-person jury rendered its unanimous verdict, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather didn’t confess error in bringing charges. Nor did he acknowledge his office had fingered an innocent man, needlessly kept him in jail for years, and wrongly accused him of a monstrous crime.
Merriweather couldn’t even bring himself to honestly title the press release his office issued after Sims’s acquittal: “Homicide Team tries man for murder of 2-year-old boy” — as though the actions of prosecutors, no matter how wrongheaded or misguided or unsuccessful, somehow mattered more than the jury’s verdict declaring Sims innocent.
The district attorney’s statement noted the acquittal, the courtroom in which the trial had been held, the judge who presided, and the length of the proceeding. But Merriweather failed to make the slightest suggestion that he accepted the jury’s verdict — he’s stuck with it whether he likes it or not — or welcomed it as the work of justice as our system defines it. Instead, his brief statement seemed animated by gracelessness and wounded pride: While twelve of Sims’s peers set him free, Merriweather chose to hold a grudge because he lost.
The Rules of Professional Conduct promulgated by the North Carolina State Bar, which apply to all attorneys, include special provisions applicable only to prosectors.
As the comments to those rules explain, “A prosecutor has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate; the prosecutor’s duty is to seek justice, not merely to convict or to uphold a conviction.” Merriweather’s curt, begrudging press release ran afoul of the spirit of those rules and suggested his office was concerned with merely scoring a victory.
On February 13, 2022, just up the interstate in neighboring Cabarrus County, Officer Timothy Larson shot and killed Brandon Combs at a Nissan dealership in Concord, North Carolina.
Larson, who is white, happened upon Combs, who was also white, as he sat in the front seat of a vehicle parked on the lot.
Combs spoke bizarrely as Larson approached the car. “Hey, take your gun off,” he said. “Take your gun off.”
“What … why? What are you … what’s going on?” Larson asked, understandably confused.
The encounter, which was captured by Larson’s body camera and lasted only about ninety seconds, quickly escalated.
Combs closed the door of the vehicle. Larson took out his gun and told Combs to show his hands. Combs didn’t. There was a struggle to open the car door.
Larson stepped away from the vehicle while continuing to yell commands at Combs. He then approached the vehicle again to try to open the door. He opened it. Combs pulled it shut. Larson put away his gun and pulled out his Taser. Then he holstered the Taser and took out his baton to try to break the car’s window. It didn’t break, and Larson took cover behind a nearby van and radioed for back-up.
Combs then exited the vehicle on the passenger side — Larson remained on the driver’s side — and ran away from Larson and toward the officer’s SUV. “He’s going to my patrol vehicle,” Larson radioed as he chased Combs, who entered the SUV and sat in the driver’s seat.
When Larson got about fifteen feet away from the vehicle’s front passenger side, he opened fire through the front windshield. At the moment he fired the first of five successive shots, the SUV’s engine revved. Larson radioed “shots fired” and then fired a sixth shot. He moved to the passenger-side door of the SUV and continued to yell commands at Combs, who was non-responsive.
Back-up arrived. Officers pulled Combs from the car, and medics took him to a hospital, where he died.
While speaking to other officers at the scene, Larson said he shot Combs not because he feared for his safety, but to stop Combs from stealing his patrol SUV, according to a lawsuit filed by Combs’s family that quotes as-yet-unreleased body camera footage.
The Concord Police Department fired Larson in May for refusing to answer questions about the shooting. The department also said Larson made untrue or misleading statements, which his attorney claimed were unrelated to the shooting.
The State Bureau of Investigation investigated the homicide and referred the matter back to Cabarrus County District Attorney Roxann Vaneekhoven, who announced in late August that she believed Larson acted in lawful self-defense when he killed Combs. She would not bring any charges against him, and he wouldn’t face a jury.
In the cases against both Sims and Larson, evidence of guilt mixed with evidence of innocence. A jury that chose to credit the inculpating evidence in each could have reasonably convicted.
As to Sims, the absence of any independent, first-hand account of the cause of A’dan’s injuries could have combined with the testimony of medical experts to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. (A caveat: My observation that a guilty verdict in Sims’s case would have been a reasonable, if not inevitable, outcome comes from reviewing the evidence and arguments police and prosecutors made available to the public in preliminary court proceedings and through various media outlets. It doesn’t appear any news outlet stationed a reporter at the courthouse during the trial to report on the daily goings on, so we have no journalistic record of the evidence actually offered at trial or the manner by which Sim’s defense dismantled it to earn an acquittal. It’s possible there was much less to the prosecutors’ case than pre-trial news coverage suggested, but because of the relative poverty of our media ecosystem, there’s no way to know. We are therefore deprived of the details and drama of the trial while being told only the result, a civic impoverishment inflicted on us by journalists content to present the trial’s story as a minutes-long episode of entertainment instead of a weeks-long exercise of deliberative democracy.)
As to Larson, a jury, when reviewing the evidence now in the public domain, including his body camera footage and his own statements about why he shot Combs, could have concluded Larson used excessive force and committed some form of criminal homicide. More specifically, a jury could have concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that Larson’s claim of self-defense was either unreasonable (in the event a jury found he actually feared for his life or safety at the moment he shot Combs, but needlessly so) or fictitious (in the event a jury found his claim of self-defense was an after-the-fact concoction, not an in-the-moment reality, and that the real reason he killed Combs was to stop Combs from stealing his car, as Larson said in the immediate wake of the shooting).
In neither case would a conviction have been pre-ordained. Rather, in each there was enough evidence to ask a jury to decide on behalf of the community whether we would treat each man as guilty or innocent, and the jury in each case could have reasonably gone either way.
But in only one case did prosecutors file charges, impanel a jury, and argue for the guilt of the accused, and the best explanation for prosecutors’ disparate treatment of Sims and Larson lay in the answer to a single question: Who is to be believed?
We tend to think the law and the decisions made regarding its enforcement must be explicable by reference to objective facts assessed by objective officials whom we expect to make, and who actually make, objective decisions about whom to hold accountable for wrongdoing. This perspective is not so much one of empirical validity, but civic faith: It must be true lest a central tenet of our public creed — equal justice under law — be revealed as the unfulfilled promise it too often is.
This vision of the law — a variation of which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.. once derisively dismissed as “a brooding omnipresence in the sky” — suggests legal actors are mere channels through which the law’s application and interpretation flow. From this perspective, the law exists independent of our decision-making about it. We merely do its bidding and obey its commands. Human judgment, including its limitations, plays no meaningful part.
When juxtaposed, the cases of Christopher Sims and Timothy Larson give the lie to this understanding of the law and demonstrate the degree to which considerations outside the law — that collection of things we might class under the heading of “politics” in its broadest sense, including the often unconscious ordering we impose on the world and the people we live among — unavoidably color our legal judgments and, therefore, the law itself.
For the law cannot decide, as a matter of factual certainty, whether someone is guilty or innocent. Only the accused — and maybe not even he — knows what he did and why. The law, by imposing a judgment of guilt or innocence, can decide only that we shall act as though someone is guilty or innocent and treat them accordingly. While actual, factual guilt or innocence may line up with a judge or jury’s determination of guilt or innocence, and therefore with how our government and society treat an accused, we know actually guilty people are sometimes acquitted and actually innocent people are sometimes convicted. Such is the consequence of requiring fallible members of the community — police officers, prosecutors, judges, and juries — to form imperfect human judgments that are to be treated by the law as true.
These judgments are necessarily influenced — and sometimes dramatically so — by the prejudices and biases that inhabit each of our individual minds. These blindspots, which have nothing to do with the law, cannot help but affect the execution, interpretation, and application of the law — and always, at their worst, threatening to make a mockery of the promise of equal justice under law.
The two trials under review — a literal, drawn-out one for Sims and a metaphorical, abbreviated one for Larson — illustrate that before police and prosecutors get to the niceties of the law — what alleged facts are true? what evidence exists to prove them beyond a reasonable doubt? can every element of a chargeable offense be proved? is it a wise use of prosecutorial and judicial resources to bring this case? — they must first answer a question not of the law, but of the society in which we live, the prejudices and biases of which influence our decision-making: Who is to be believed?
In Sims’s case, there was no witness to what caused A’dan’s injuries. Sims denied wrongdoing and said A’dan hit his head at a playground. Medical experts, who were armed only with the power to draw inferences after the fact, thought that story unlikely and concluded for themselves that A’dan died from deliberate abuse. (It’s interesting to note that it appears Sims was charged with murder before A’dan’s autopsy was completed, which means the decision to adopt a theory of murder was made before the expert evidence supporting the charge existed. Sims was doomed to enter the maw of the criminal justice system the moment he showed up at the hospital.)
Prosecutors had to decide who to believe, Sims or the medical experts. They believed the experts and disbelieved Sims. Hence the charges and trial.
In Larson’s case, we were all eventually witnesses to what happened: His body camera captured every second of his encounter with Combs. Anyone can watch it for themselves and draw their own conclusions.
It shows a man killing another without legal justification, firing through the windshield of an automobile at a moment when Larson faced no imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury. Larson himself acknowledged the lack of an imminent threat when, immediately after the shooting, he told fellow officers he shot Combs because he was attempting to steal Larson’s patrol vehicle. If police and prosecutors took Larson at his word, they would have charged him with some form of criminal homicide because lethal force cannot be used to stop the theft of an automobile.
But Larson changed his tune. He later said he shot at Combs because he feared Combs was about to run him down with his patrol car and because Combs, after entering Larson’s SUV, had access to Larson’s assault rifle — which could be released only by pushing a button on the vehicle’s console and then flipping a latch on the stand holding the weapon. This combination of facts, Larson eventually argued, put him in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury and therefore justified his use of lethal force.
Larson’s post hoc explanations — in addition to lacking credibility in the way such post hoc explanations usually do, especially when they contradict earlier statements — are inconsistent, at least arguably so, with his body camera footage: Larson was not in the path of the vehicle, which was still parked and whose engine didn’t rev until the moment he fired his weapon.
And it is difficult to accept at face value the argument about Combs’s access to Larson’s assault rifle given the short time span — just a few seconds — during which time Larson approached his vehicle before opening fire. This is especially so in light of the two-step process Combs would have had to somehow intuitively understand before he could actually gain access to the weapon. The assault rifle argument smacks of an after-the-fact justification that couldn’t have possibly occurred to Larson in the moment — especially in light of his own statements to other officers after the shooting about his decision to fire at Combs to stop the theft of his patrol car. (That the Concord Police Department fired Larson for his dishonesty or lack of cooperation when questioned about the shooting also undermines his credibility.)
All of this, at a bare minimum, would have allowed a prosecutor to put together a prima facie case of criminal homicide and provided a sufficient good-faith basis for the district attorney to bring the case to trial.
But not in Vaneekhoven’s mind. She went out of her way to credit Larson’s self-serving statements by disregarding the body camera footage and Larson’s own post-shooting explanation for killing Combs. In a word, she chose to believe Larson — and once she made the decision to believe him, contrary evidence pointing to his guilt was explained away as insignificant or insufficient.
Larson, a white man with a badge, was believed because people like him are to be believed, while Sims, a Black man accused of a crime, was not believed because people like him are not to be believed. A white man with a badge gets every conceivable benefit of the doubt, while a Black man accused of a crime may suffer a de facto presumption of guilt — even when the evidence is mixed and, as the jury eventually told us in Sims’s case, insufficient to warrant a conviction.
Prosecutorial opinions regarding credibility and veracity offer the best explanation for the difference between Sims’s five-year ordeal that could have ended with him spending his life behind bars and Larson’s six-month ordeal that ended with a guarantee he would remain a free man. As to both men, the decision about whether to believe him — a decision not of the law, but society — was the first domino that set the remaining chain on its course, and every legal decision made thereafter was made in light of that initial, extra-legal assessment of credibility.
In one case, because he deemed the accused not believable, the prosecutor viewed the evidence — and asked us to view the evidence — in a light most favorable to guilt. In the other, because she deemed the accused believable, the prosecutor viewed the evidence — and asked us to view the evidence — in a light most favorable to innocence.
Among the surest signs in Larson’s case that the prosecutor thusly approached his claim of self-defense is the degree to which her statement explaining the decision not to charge Larson reads like an argument from a defense attorney advocating for her client.
The statement includes information irrelevant to the legal question raised by the case — was Larson justified in using deadly force? — to paint Combs in the worst possible light, which tends to generate sympathy for Larson and scorn for Combs.
For example, Vaneekhoven, who retired immediately after clearing Larson of wrongdoing, in her statement noted that Combs had been released from jail only thirty-six hours before the shooting and described “the felonies [Combs] had just committed” prior to the shooting when he smashed in a window of the car dealership and stole various items.
Larson didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, any of this, as Vaneekhoven acknowledged.
So why include it? The Supreme Court long ago established that when assessing whether a police officer was justified in using deadly force, “the question is whether the officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them.” Prosecutors and juries are supposed to look only at what the officer actually knew at the time of the shooting, and since Larson didn’t know any of these things, they are irrelevant to the legal question Vaneekhoven sought to answer. The only reason to include them in any public statement about the decision not to charge Larson is to provide extra-legal bolstering to the pre-legal determination that Larson was believable and Combs somehow deserving of his fate. Just as Larson benefitted from an extra-legal assessment of his credibility at the commencement of the investigation, he benefitted from extra-legal distractions at the conclusion of it.
Other portions of Vaneekhoven’s statement mischaracterized the facts or described them in a light most favorable to Larson. Consider two examples:
First, Vaneekhoven made much of the fact that at the beginning of their interaction, when they faced each other through the driver’s side window of the vehicle where Larson first found Combs, Larson commanded Combs to show his hands and Combs didn’t. This is true, but misleading — because it treats a marginally relevant fact as essential. It was not during this portion of their exchange that Larson shot Combs. Rather, the shooting occurred after Combs exited the vehicle and sprinted to Larson’s patrol SUV. That Combs didn’t show his hands during an earlier part of the encounter is the sort of fact Larson’s defense attorney might use to characterize Combs as erratic or dangerous, but it’s an unusual choice of emphasis for a prosecutor — unless she has concluded a priori that Larson is to be believed and Larson and Combs’s actions are to be assessed in light of that extra-legal judgment.
Second, Vaneekhoven mischaracterized the sequence of events surrounding the actual shooting. She wrote, “Larson was 5-10 feet away from the front of his police SUV towards the passenger side front tire when he heard the engine of the police SUV begin to roar. At this point, with the engine roaring and Larson fearing for his life, the police SUV is a deadly weapon that can cause death or serious injury. Fearing for his life Larson fired 5 rapid succession shots through the front windshield of the police SUV, and then heard the engine roar louder as if the gas pedal has been pressed all the way down. Larson called in ‘shots fired, shots fired’ and then quickly fired one more shot.” (She then suggested Larson had shown restraint by shooting Combs only six times, noting, “Larson had 10 rounds left in his firearm and he did not shoot anymore.”)
The picture Vaneekhoven tried to paint is clear: A madman sitting behind the wheel of a police SUV had a cop in his sights and was revving the engine in preparation for running him down as he stood in front of the vehicle. In explaining her decision to not charge Larson, she leaned heavily on this characterization of events when offering her bottom-line conclusion: “Officer Larson did not utilize excessive force when he fired his weapon into the fully revved police SUV that was pointed at him a few feet away.” (Interestingly, this bottom-line conclusion omits any mention of the locked-up assault rifle, which suggests even Vaneekhoven thought that part of Larson’s story was a bit too much to believe.)
It’s a compelling story — but not an especially accurate one. According to Larson’s body camera footage, he wasn’t in front of the vehicle, but off to its front-right, and the engine didn’t start to “roar” until Larson discharged his weapon. While Vaneekhoven’s characterization of events is accurate enough that a defense attorney arguing to a jury could adopt it as his own, it is far from the best characterization of events that night, and not one we would expect a prosecutor to make — unless she had already decided Larson was to be believed and the facts were to be narrated in a manner consistent with his innocence.
Vaneekhoven’s preferred narrative is especially unusual in light of the most significant omission in her statement: Larson’s admission to fellow officers in the immediate wake of the shooting that he shot Combs to prevent the theft of his police SUV. This is not surmise or conjecture. Larson himself actually said it, but Vaneekhoven found no place in her analysis for what amounts to a confession.
Armed with prosecutorial discretion, and having made the extra-legal choice to believe Larson, Vaneekhoven characterized the facts and law in a manner that allowed her to make a thoroughly predictable legal judgment about the officer’s innocence, the sort of judgment we almost always see when cops kill.
Why would it be otherwise? Larson counts, which means he was to be believed no matter the implausibility of his story. And that means he never had to worry about suffering the kind of legal ordeal experienced by Sims, someone who doesn’t count and simply wasn’t to be believed.