Authorities charge Connecticut officer who opened fire on couple's car

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- A Connecticut police officer who opened fire on an unarmed couple's car, seriously wounding a woman, was charged Monday with assault and reckless endangerment.

State's Attorney Patrick Griffin said in an investigation report that Hamden officer Devin Eaton showed "an extreme indifference to human life" and that the use of force April 16 in New Haven was not justified.

Eaton, 29, who has been on the force for three years, posted $100,000 bail and was ordered to appear in court Oct. 28 to face one count of first-degree assault and two counts of first-degree reckless endangerment. He did not return a message seeking comment.

His lawyer, Gregory Cerritelli, said Eaton and fellow officers are distraught by the arrest and the case sends a chilling message to law enforcement. He declined to discuss specifics of the allegations.

"Police officers are called upon to make split-second decisions and exercise their judgment and discretion," Cerritelli said. "It's a sad day for the law enforcement community because the message officer Eaton's arrest sends is that they need to be 100 percent right 100 percent of the time."

The shooting sparked several protests in New Haven and neighboring Hamden and prompted calls from area clergy and activists for the two officers involved to be fired.

According to police, Eaton and Yale University officer Terrance Pollock both opened fire on the car, which matched the description of one involved in a reported attempted armed robbery, after the driver, Paul Witherspoon III, got out abruptly. Eaton's body camera video shows Witherspoon, who was not injured, starting to exit the car and appearing to raise his hands when Eaton begins shooting. Witherspoon then quickly gets back into the vehicle.

Eaton, who told authorities he thought Witherspoon had a gun, fired a few shots at the driver's side of the car, then ran to the other side and fired again, blowing out the passenger-side windows.

Witherspoon's girlfriend, Stephanie Washington, 22, was wounded but survived. More details of her injuries were released Monday, showing she was struck by one bullet that fractured her pelvis and spine.

"It was like being in a nightmare. I thought I was going to die," Washington said in a sworn statement to police that was released Monday.

Investigators later determined Eaton fired 13 times and Pollock three times. Pollock's use of deadly force was found to be justified, Griffin said, because the officer believed Eaton and Witherspoon were exchanging gunfire.

Shots from Eaton's gun injured both Washington and Pollock, who suffered a graze wound.

A sworn statement by Eaton to investigators was released Monday.

"I could see that he was not holding anything in his left hand but as he began to turn towards me I saw the operator (Witherspoon) begin to raise his right arm up and it appeared that he was holding an object in his right hand, which I believed to be a gun," Eaton said.

"Based on his close proximity to me and his sudden and aggressive actions when exiting the vehicle, I was afraid that the operator was about to shoot me and cause me serious bodily injury or death," Eaton said.

Griffin said no weapons were found on Witherspoon, Washington or in the car.

Hamden officials said Eaton's arrest also means the paid leave he has been on since the shooting will be changed to unpaid leave.

Another lawyer for Eaton, Elliot Spector, has said Eaton did not know the other officer had arrived at the scene and believed Witherspoon was shooting at him, when in reality it was the other officer firing his gun.

Griffin said in his investigation report that some of Eaton's statements conflicted with the evidence, and that the Yale officer didn't start to fire his weapon until Eaton already had fired eight times.

"Under circumstances evincing an extreme indifference to human life, he recklessly engaged in conduct which created a risk of death, and thereby caused serious physical injury to Washington," Griffin said in his report. "Additionally, the reckless manner in which the shots were discharged placed those in the immediate vicinity, including Paul Witherspoon and Officer Pollock, at risk for serious physical injury."

Witherspoon and Washington, as well as both officers, are black.

Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut State Conference of the NAACP, said Monday that he continued to believe both officers should have been arrested.

"Being arrested is one thing and getting convicted is another," Esdaile added. "We've seen officers arrested but walk away without being convicted. It's no time to celebrate. We still have a long way to go."

Yale officials said Pollock remains on leave pending the outcome of an internal affairs investigation.

The shooting followed a reported attempted armed robbery at a gas station in Hamden. The clerk later told police he didn't see a gun, and surveillance video shows Witherspoon appearing to have an argument with another man but not robbing him.

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