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Crime

After teen shot to death by Baltimore police, family questions officer tactics: ‘His story needs to be heard’

Two weeks after Baltimore police shot and killed a teen driver while pursuing him over an outstanding bench warrant, his family and friends gathered Tuesday afternoon outside Baltimore Police headquarters and demanded criminal charges against the officers who opened fire.

Holding handmade neon-colored signs and hugging one another for warmth, the small group of protesters questioned how officers approached Donnell Rochester in the moments preceding the deadly shooting.

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“They ran up on him with guns drawn,” said his aunt, Shawnta Kernesy. “What child wouldn’t get scared and try to pull off?”

The police department released a series of body-worn camera videos days after Rochester, 18, was pronounced dead at the hospital Feb. 19. Baltimore police were trying to contact him about a warrant for failing to appear in court on an earlier carjacking charge, officials said.

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After gunshots sound, the video shows, the car stops suddenly and Rochester steps out with his hands up, then falls to his knees. He lies facedown on the pavement while police quickly handcuff him and blood pools on the ground. According to their statements recorded on body camera footage, the officers located a gunshot wound to his chest while trying to render aid.

Medics later arrived and transported Rochester to the hospital.

“The police, they treat people like they’re not human,” said Kevin Jenkins, 18, a longtime friend of Rochester. “His story needs to be heard because it’s not just him — it’s Freddie Gray ... and all the others. This is part of a trend.”

After seeing the body camera footage, media reports and recent statements from police leaders, Rochester’s friends and relatives said they plan to continue organizing regular gatherings outside Baltimore Police headquarters calling for accountability. They questioned why Rochester had to lose his life over a missed court date.

“They killed him for nothing,” Kernesy said. “But they killed the wrong one because he has a whole team of supporters, and we’re going to keep fighting for justice.”

During a news conference several days after the shooting, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison promised a thorough investigation.

“I understand fully the high level of public scrutiny that results from any use of force from our department, and law enforcement agencies across the country,” he said.

Officials said police pursued Rochester after running his license plate and finding the outstanding bench warrant. After the shooting, investigators found a second arrest warrant against Rochester from a different jurisdiction, Harrison said, but he provided no further details about that case.

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Baltimore police tried to stop Rochester in the 1800 block of Chilton Street, where Rochester and a female passenger exited the car, officials said. But then Rochester got back inside and started driving away — while Officer Connor Murray was running up the street toward the moving vehicle.

Murray, a three-year veteran, fired his gun, then jumped out of the way as the car continued down the street. Another officer, Robert Mauri, also fired his weapon.

Police and prosecutors have not disclosed any details about any charges he may have faced in juvenile court.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office is investigating whether the shooting was legally justified, and an internal investigation will determine whether either officer violated Baltimore police policy.

Before authorities notified Rochester’s family about his death, relatives said they saw TV news reports about a police shooting and recognized his car in the footage. Panicked, they tried repeatedly to call his phone and then rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Loved ones said they’re mourning the loss of a young man whose passion and energy were contagious.

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They said Rochester was always making people laugh — both his closest friends and his large following on Instagram. A free spirit, he loved putting together a flashy outfit, including his signature oversized sunglasses.

“He really brought me out of my shell,” his friend Jenkins said, describing how Rochester seemed so comfortable in his own skin that he made other people around him comfortable, too.

As a child, Rochester was easygoing and upbeat, his aunt said. His family lived in the Gilmor Homes housing project in Sandtown-Winchester when he was in elementary school — and around the time Gray died from injuries suffered in police custody — but later moved outside the city.

When he was 12, Rochester was photographed and quoted in a 2016 Time magazine feature about the struggling West Baltimore neighborhood where Gray also grew up.

“I’m happy I’m getting out of here,” Rochester told a Time photographer. “They do anything in Gilmor Projects, it’s a lot of shootings, it’s a lot of killings. It’s just everything. Basically a child wouldn’t want to grow up in Gilmor. I know I didn’t.”

In more recent years, friends said, Rochester seemed to have found a bright future. He was on the cusp of adulthood, still figuring out his path.

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“I just thought we had more time,” said his friend Jamea Gunn. “Now, we need justice.”


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