District Attorney Ernie Lee made the only decision we thought he could make in the case against eight Sampson County law enforcement officers — seven from the Clinton Police Department and one from the N.C. Highway Patrol — when he cleared them of any wrongdoing in the death of a Warsaw man.
Monday, Lee called the fatal shooting of John Mark Coffey following a standoff with the officers “justified”, noting that while the incident was tragic, the victim’s actions brought about the barrage of bullets that ended his life.
Lee was correct in his finding. Evidence bears that out, including dash-cam video and body cameras worn by officers that showed they tried for nearly a half hour to talk the gun-toting man into laying down his weapon and surrendering, all to no avail.
Coffey’s actions, Lee noted in his report, caused officers to “reasonably believe it necessary to use deadly force to protect the lives of law enforcement officers at the scene.”
Did they do everything perfectly? Probably not. In extreme circumstances who would? But did they do their best to resolve an intense situation calmly and without incident? According to all those we talked to when the incident happened on May 31, including neighbors who heard the incident unfold, the answer is a resounding yes.
We believe, based on what we know now, that officers tried to end this peacefully and only fired when the victim raised his gun and pointed it at them.
That we think officers acted correctly doesn’t make this any less a tragedy, though, a point Lee reiterated time and again. The victim had family, people who loved him and will mourn his loss, just as we do. Any time a life is taken, particularly in such a violent way, it is tragic. But as unfortunate — and likely hard to accept — as it may be for the victim’s family, we believe Coffey was the author of his own demise, and we believe evidence points to that fact.
He was clearly told time and again by officers to put down the shotgun he was holding and surrender peacefully. In fact, one of the officers can clearly be heard telling Coffey “whatever you’re going through, it’s not worth your life, man.”
Coffey apparently didn’t see it that way, and he never put down his weapon. What other choice, then, did officers have when he started to step out of the car, still pointing a gun?
While the number of rounds fired could seem excessive to an outsider looking at this situation from their couch and not from a darkened parking lot at midnight, the district attorney noted that it wasn’t until “the third volley of shots that the apparent threat by Coffey was neutralized,” again a justification for what we’ve heard some define as excessive force.
But it’s very difficult to define excessive force unless you are there, facing a gun-toting individual who is refusing to put down the weapon.
Officers noted in their interviews with SBI that they felt threatened during the standoff; we’ve no doubt they did.
Yet clearing the officers in no way alleviates the sadness surrounding this situation, nor does it take away what we know most be haunting memories for the men and women involved in this tragic shooting. We know these officers, we interact with them every day, as do many in this community. They are good men and women, and we’ve no doubt they will carry the scars of this incident for years to come.
We hope they will continue to have the support of a caring community which stands behind law enforcement officers who do a great job day in and day out of protecting us and this place we call home. Our support certainly will not wane.
What happened on May 31 was an unfortunate, terribly sad incident with a horrific outcome. Our prayers remain with all those involved, knowing that it cannot, not will not, be easy on anyone touched by the events that unfolded.