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Relatives of man killed by Baltimore County police officer in Essex want a grand jury to review the case

The family of a man killed by a Baltimore County Police officer is calling for a grand jury days after authorities released footage from the shooting and said they would not press charges against the officer.

Prosecutors said Wednesday that the body camera footage shows Robert Johnson Jr.‘s shooting was justified. The footage shows Johnson picking up a handgun that fell from his car, prompting Police Officer First Class Knight to fire at Johnson in front of an Essex townhome complex.

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The video shows Knight shooting at Johnson eight times, striking the 29-year-old from Owings Mills three times in his back and buttocks as he ran away. Johnson’s brother, 20-year-old Freddie Jackson, was inside a home trying to guide children upstairs when one of Knight’s bullets pierced the door and struck Jackson’s leg, relatives said.

Baltimore attorneys Kenneth Ravenell and Warren Brown were under the impression that the case would go before a grand jury after several conversations with the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office, Brown said Friday. However, he said prosecutors changed their mind when the video was released Wednesday.

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A grand jury — which must be called by the county State’s Attorney’s office — could review the evidence and decide whether the officer should be charged with a crime.

Brown stood in front of the Baltimore County Courthouse in Towson as he called the decision not to prosecute Knight “inappropriate.” Prosecutors claimed Johnson pointed the gun at Knight, but Brown said the video shows Johnson’s back was facing Knight “the entire time.”

Robert Johnson Jr., 29
Robert Johnson Jr., 29 (Handout / HANDOUT)

“This is not an attempt to protect one’s self or others, but it’s a chase of an individual with a handgun,” Brown said. “[Knight] understands and the State[‘s Attorney] understands that just running with a gun does not allow police to use deadly force, so the officer knows his ‘get out of jail card’ has to be ‘that the gun was pointed at me.‘”

It’s okay for Knight to do his job to apprehend someone like Johnson who had a gun, Brown said, but the attorney stressed Johnson’s body only “contorts” and raises the weapon as he’s running away from Knight’s gunfire.

Knight is a 24-year veteran assigned to the Essex Precinct with no prior officer-involved shootings. The department initially placed Knight on administrative leave, but he’s resumed his patrol duties in Essex. The department typically does not provide first names of officers, citing an agreement with the police union.

Baltimore County Deputy State’s Attorney Robin Coffin called the shooting “a tragedy for everyone,” but said Johnson was “a threat” to Knight and the community when he held the gun and ran toward the townhomes. Police also said the gun carried by Johnson turned up in a database as stolen from Virginia.

Prosecutors have the power to bring the case before the grand jury, and Coffin told The Baltimore Sun that neither of the attorneys for Johnson’s family have asked for a grand jury until now. She called Brown’s statements “grandstanding ridiculousness” intended “to create greater buzz.”

Coffin said her office would have taken the case to the grand jury if the attorneys asked her about it before announcing their decision about charges Wednesday.

“It is a tragedy, I can’t say it anymore clearly, but it was a justified shooting,” Coffin said.

Brown said Friday afternoon that Coffin initially thought about attending Friday’s press conference with him. She appeared to be ready to “side with me on this issue of taking it to the grand jury,” but she told Brown Thursday during a conference call that her office wouldn’t take the case to a jury, he said.

A frustrated Brown said by phone that prosecutors should “just take the damn case into the grand jury” regardless of what was assumed prior to the footage release.

Brown said Johnson’s family wasn’t yet able to discuss the case.

“I know it’s only natural oftentimes for the public to start looking for skeletons in the closet of this victim as if to say ‘If he’s bad it’s okay to shoot him in the back,’” Brown said, “so they’re [the family] emotionally wrought by all of this.”

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