Jury clears officers of wrongdoing

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COEUR d’ALENE — A jury exonerated Sandpoint Police officers of any wrongdoing Friday in the shooting death of Jeanetta Riley.

The panel of four women and three men deliberated for about an hour and a half before unanimously ruling that her civil rights and those of her husband, Shane, were not violated during the deadly confrontation outside Bonner General Health on July 8, 2014.

Sandpoint Police were summoned to the hospital after Shane Riley reported to the emergency room and explained that his wife was outside with a knife and threatening to harm people. Within minutes, officers Garret Johnson, Micheal Valenzuela and Skylar Ziegler were on the scene. Within seconds, Jeanetta Riley was fatally shot by Valenzuela and Ziegler.

Video footage from dash-mounted and body-worn cameras showed officers arriving with guns drawn and closing in on Jeanetta Riley. She was first ordered to come to the officers and then to show her hands. Those commands transitioned to “drop the knife!”

“No!” Jeanetta Riley said.

“Drop the knife!” the officers repeated.

After cursing at the officers, Jeanetta Riley is heard saying “Bring it on!” She was shot after stepping off the curb and toward the officers.

“I think the fact that there was such a short period of time in which the officers had an opportunity to assess the situation and then try and stop the threat that Jeanetta Riley made to them. I think that had an impact on the jury,” the city’s legal counsel, Coeur d’Alene attorney Peter Erbland, said after the jury rendered its verdict, capping a five-day trial in U.S. District Court.

Erbland said the officers, in addition to Chief Corey Coon, were relieved to have the dark legal cloud shadowing them for the last five years finally dissipate.

“They knew that what they did was appropriate under the circumstances. They wanted an opportunity to show that and they did,” said Erbland.

The shooting to this day evokes strong feelings in the community, with some arguing officers were justified when confronting a subject with an edged weapon who ignored repeated commands. Others, meanwhile, contend the shooting was grossly unjust, unnecessary and avoidable.

Counsel for Shane Riley, Drew Dalton, argued during his closing remarks that officers needlessly escalated the situation by immediately closing in on Jeanetta Riley with guns drawn.

“There were no words of, ‘Stop or I’ll shoot!’” Dalton told jurors.

Dalton asked jurors to award up to a $2 million in damages for Jeanetta’s wrongful death and the officers’ use of excessive force. Damages were also sought for the Shane Riley’s unlawful detention by Johnson after his wife was shot.

“There’s testimony that the officers were reckless,” Dalton said.

During his closing remarks, Erbland emphasized that the officers could only act on the limited information they had in that moment and did not have the luxury of pausing to come up with a game plan to disarm Jeanetta Riley and defuse the situation without bloodshed.

“What we see here are officers who were faced with this,” Erbland said, displaying the fillet knife Jeanetta Riley was clutching at the time of her death.

After the verdict, Erbland said the video footage underscored how little time officers had to assess and react to the threat. He added that he was honored to represent the officers involved in the case.

“We were pleased to be vindicated after all this time,” Erbland said.

Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at kkinnaird@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.

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