No charges for task force members in Winston Smith death
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Members of a U.S. Marshals Service task force will not be charged in the fatal shooting of Winston Smith Jr., a Black man who was killed while authorities were trying to arrest him as he sat in an SUV at a Minneapolis parking ramp, a prosecutor announced Monday.
Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan said in letters dated last Wednesday that the task force members were justified in using deadly force when they shot Smith on June 3 as they tried to detain him for allegedly being a felon in possession of a firearm. The central Minnesota prosecutor reviewed the case because prosecutors in the Twin Cities area had conflicts of interest and the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office announced the decision Monday.
Ryan said task force members were identifiable as law enforcement, told Smith he was under arrest and ordered him out of the vehicle. Ryan said Smith didn’t comply and as task force members tried to enter the SUV, “Smith initiated a deadly force confrontation ... by drawing his handgun and firing.”
“Though I am unable to determine who fired first, it is irrelevant in this case,” Ryan wrote. “Once an individual initiates a deadly force confrontation, a law enforcement officer does not have to wait to be shot/shot at before reacting.” He said task force members’ actions were reasonable, justified and “in response to an apparent threat of death or great bodily harm.”
Smith, 32, of St. Paul, was in a parked SUV when he was shot. The U.S. Marshals Service said at the time that he didn’t comply and “produced a handgun resulting in task force members firing.”
Ryan said the task force used lights and sirens as they boxed in the SUV, wore clearly marked tactical vests and gave numerous commands for Smith to keep his hands visible as he did something with his phone. Ryan said Smith didn’t comply for “several minutes.” As law enforcement began to break a window, Smith looked at them “with a look of annoyance/disgust on his face.”
Ryan said Smith then dropped his phone, twisted his body and leaned into the back seat. He was told to stop reaching and recoiled into the driver’s seat when a task force member yelled “don’t do it,” then “gun, gun, gun,” Ryan wrote. That task force member then fired at Smith. Another pulled a handgun and began firing.
The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office said Smith was shot multiple times.
Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and an activist against police violence, said he’s not surprised. “There is absolutely no confidence that county prosecutors can fully bring forth justice against law enforcement,” he said.
A woman who was in the SUV with Smith has said through her attorneys that law enforcement officers were not in uniform and did not identify themselves when they surrounded the SUV with guns drawn. Norhan Askar also said that she never saw a gun on Smith or in his vehicle, and that he was shot after he raised a cellphone to begin recording.
Ryan said a handgun, and six spent cartridge cases that came from that weapon, were found inside the vehicle. Tests showed bullet fragments also had been fired from that gun.
Minneapolis was already on edge following the death of George Floyd more than a year earlier, and the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright by an officer in nearby Brooklyn Center in April. Smith’s death led to protests in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood, including one in which a woman was killed when a man who was visibly intoxicated drove into protesters.
Authorities said at the time there was no video of the shooting, and the lack of body camera footage raised questions as Smith’s family and activists demanded transparency. Local officials said the deputies on the task force were assigned body cameras, but were told by the U.S. Marshals Service that they could not use them, despite an October 2020 change in Justice Department policy that would have allowed their use.
But Ryan wrote that there is body camera footage of Askar, recorded immediately after the shooting. Ryan said Askar said in the video it “happened really fast where a bunch of officers came out of nowhere” and told them to put their hands up. In the video, described by Ryan, Askar said she put her hands up and pleaded with Smith to do the same, but Smith would not, saying he did not want to go back to jail and he was “going to die.”
Ryan said Askar also gave a statement to state investigators saying she did not remember seeing a gun in Smith’s vehicle.
The task force members who shot Smith included a Ramsey County Sheriff’s deputy and a Hennepin County Sheriff’s deputy. Their names were not released because they were working undercover.