Kent County, Mich., prosecutor Christopher Becker on Thursday (June 9) filed a single count of second-degree murder against the Grand Rapids police officer who fatally shot Patrick Lyoya in the head during a traffic stop two months ago.
Speaking at a press conference, Becker said Officer Christopher Schurr turned himself over to Michigan State Police authorities and was expected to face arraignment on Friday (June 10).
A second degree murder charge is considered a felony offense in Michigan, meaning Schurr could face life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Schurr, who is white, pulled over Lyoya, 26, on April 4 for having a license plate that didn’t match the car he was driving. During a scuffle, Schurr fired his weapon into the back of his head, according to autopsies, killing the African immigrant. Videos of the shooting ignited protests and demands for justice.
But Lyoya's family was pleased with the decision to pursue the case against Schurr. Family attorney Benjamin Crump said in a statement that the process can now move forward.
"While the road to justice for Patrick and his family has just begun, this decision is a crucial step in the right direction," said Crump. "Officer Schurr must be held accountable for his decision to pursue an unarmed Patrick, ultimately shooting him in the back of the head and killing him – for nothing more than a traffic stop.”
The New York Times reports that Schurr’s patrol car was equipped with an automatic plate reader. He pulled over Lyoya because the plate didn’t match the car, though it’s unclear if the equipment alerted Schurr or if it was a driving-while-Black situation as some people have suggested.
Lyoya, who was unarmed, stepped out of the vehicle and asked Schurr, 31, why he was stopped. “The plate doesn’t belong on this car,” the officer replied. What happened next was captured in videos from a passenger in Lyoya’s car, home-surveillance system, as well as Schurr’s dashboard and body-worn cameras.
Lyoya fled on foot and Schurr ran after him. The officer pulled out his Taser and fired at him twice without success. Schurr caught up to Lyoya and sat on Lyoya’s back. During the struggle, Schurr shot him in the back of the head.
According to CNN, Lyoya had three outstanding warrants at the time of the traffic stop, and an autopsy found that his blood-alcohol level was three times above the legal limit to drive.
Two policing experts told The Times that they have issues with how Schurr managed the encounter, including his decision to pursue Lyoya without waiting for backup. Instead of de-escalating the encounter when Lyoya got out of his car, Schurr confronted him in a verbally aggressive manner.
The policing experts also questioned why the officer fired his Taser at close range on Lyoya. According to The Times, the Grand Rapids police chief said that officers were trained not to deploy a Taser within four feet of a suspect.
Before immigrating to the United States in 2014, Lyoya lived with his family in a refugee camp in Malawi after escaping a violent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Grand Rapids, which sits about 2 ½ hours west of Detroit, in recent years has become one of several western Michigan communities serving as a haven for immigrants fleeing war in the Congo. Each year, between 700 and 1,000 refugees from various nations come to the area, according to the nonprofit Refugee Education Center.