The state’s investigation into the Nov. 1 fatal shooting of Council rancher Jack Yantis by two Adams County sheriff’s deputies took nearly nine months. On Friday, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden announced the results: no criminal charges.
Why did it take so long?
Wasden said his office moved quickly once the Idaho State Police investigation was finished — and that investigation was complex. It resulted in more than 50 witness interviews, 5,300 pages of documents, 590 photos, and 30 hours of audio and video recordings.
“That is a sizable amount of information to be able to review and assimilate in a very short time period,” Wasden told reporters.
“We acknowledge there has been criticism from the media and from the community about the length of this process. All of us wish matters could happen much faster. But that is not the way our system is built.”
A car collided with one of Yantis’ bulls the night of Nov. 1 in front of his ranch on U.S. 95 north of Council. At dispatchers’ request, Yantis went out to the highway to euthanize the animal.
What happened next is disputed. Deputies Brian Wood and Cody Roland say Yantis disobeyed their commands, and pointed the rifle he had brought to kill the bull at one of them and fired, so they returned fire. Yantis was shot 12 times. Yantis’ widow and nephew said that Yantis did not threaten the deputies with his rifle and that the deputies killed him needlessly.
ISP investigators turned over their findings to Wasden’s office March 10. The attorney general received additional investigative material from ISP on April 14 and May 5. The attorney general also requested that state police detectives re-interview Roland. The attorney general received that interview and the final ballistics report on June 7-8.
“In addition on June 13, we asked ISP to do a reconstruction of this scene,” Wasden said. “We reconstructed the scene in Meridian and walked through the entirety of the events and the various witness statements, and then we drove that same day to Council and went to the actual scene … so we had a full and complete picture of what had happened.”
Wasden said he had about a dozen employees working on the case, including four attorneys and three investigators.
“We’ve had this matter really less than two months,” he said Friday. “By anyone’s standards that is a pretty rapid rate of response.”
Wasden emphasized that he did not clear the deputies.
“I am not saying the actions by the deputies were justifiable, nor I am saying they were not justifiable,” he said. “We are saying one thing: It is our firm professional belief that we do not have sufficient evidence in this case to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And as a result of that, our conclusion is we will not be filing criminal charges.”
Why no grand jury?
Wasden also said he did not take the Yantis case to a grand jury because the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction.
“If a case cannot be proven, prosecutors cannot simply bring it to a grand jury in the hope of getting indictments,” Wasden told the Statesman. “Doing so would violate my obligation as a minister of justice. Moreover, bringing it to a grand jury doesn’t alleviate the need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime charged occurred.”
What does the law say about deaths involving police officers?
The AG’s analysis in the Yantis case on “the particularly relevant law”:
“... A homicide committed by a public officer is justified ‘when reasonably necessary in overcoming actual resistance to the execution of some legal process, or in the discharge of any other legal duty including ... keeping and preserving the peace.’ If deadly force is used to overcome actual resistance, the officer must have ‘probable cause to believe that the resistance poses a threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or other persons.’ Most important to the charging decision in this case, the jury instruction for this defense requires that ‘the burden is on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the homicide was not justifiable (and) if there is a reasonable doubt whether the homicide was justifiable, (the jury) must find the defendant not guilty.’
“Finally, in reference to officer-involved shooting cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has explained that ‘the calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation,’ Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396-397 (1989), and that ‘if police officers are justified in firing at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety, the officers need not stop shooting until the threat has ended.’ Plumhoffv. Rickard, 134 S. Ct. 2012, 2016 (2014).”