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On shooting a man in a wheelchair 9 times in the back: A tale of 2 justice systems
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On shooting a man in a wheelchair 9 times in the back: A tale of 2 justice systems

  • Former officer Ryan Remington
    TPDFormer officer Ryan Remington

Joel Feinman is the head of the Pima County Public Defender's Office.

On November 29, 2021, a Walmart employee contacts off-duty Tucson Police Department Officer Ryan Remington, who was working as a security guard at that store, about a man in a wheelchair allegedly stealing a toolbox. The employee and Officer Remington follow 61-year-old Richard Lee Richards outside and ask to see a receipt. Mr. Richards allegedly brandishes a knife and says, "Here's your receipt," and "If you want me to put down the knife, you're going to have to shoot me."

A second officer arrives on the scene and Mr. Richards begins to enter a Lowes store across the street. Body-worn camera footage shows the two officers chasing after Richards and telling him to stop. Richards never turns his wheelchair around and never threatens either officer with a knife - or anything else. Just before Richards enters the Lowes, Officer Remington fires nine bullets into his back, killing him.

The Tucson Police Department terminated Officer Remington five weeks after the killing.

Three months have now passed and the Pima County Attorney's Office has yet to file any criminal charges against him. Remington has yet to spend one moment in jail.

This is a tale of two justice systems.

When a police officer kills someone in Arizona they benefit from a very special justice system, guided by unique laws and practices granted only to police.

The officer is never arrested. Instead, a senior prosecutor who specializes in officer-involved shootings looks at the evidence, weighs it in the context of A.R.S. § 13-410, which authorizes police to use deadly force, and makes a recommendation to a larger committee and the top elected county attorney, who then makes the ultimate determination whether or not to charge the officer with a crime.

To my knowledge no police officer has ever been arrested or prosecuted for shooting someone in the history of Pima County. Not once.

When people ask why this is, PCAO inevitably points to A.R.S. § 13-410 and the very high bar it sets for convicting police. Additionally, the prosecutor's office will correctly point out deciding whether or not to charge an officer must be informed by analyzing the likelihood the officer will be convicted at trial; a process which includes analysis of the strengths of affirmative defenses, the quality of witness statements, the availability of evidence, and other factors.

The second justice system is guided by very different procedures, and operates when anyone other than a police officer kills another human being.

This second system invariably leads to a very different outcome. If all of the details of this story were exactly the same, but Ryan Remington had any job besides police officer when he shot a person in a wheelchair nine times in the back, he would have been immediately arrested and taken to the Pima County Jail.

PCAO would have asked a judge to hold him in jail on a $1-2 million bond, and the judge would have almost certainly complied.

No special panel of prosecutors would have examined the case to weigh the evidence, and the elected county attorney would likely not be involved in the final charging decision.

Instead, within 10 days of the shooting, whichever line prosecutor who happened to be assigned the case would have taken the case to a grand jury and asked them to indict Mr. Remington on a charge of first or second-degree murder.

The grand jury would have complied and Remington would stay in jail for 1-3 years until his trial, as it is very unlikely PCAO would offer him a plea agreement given this set of circumstances.

If a jury convicted Remington of second-degree murder he would go to prison for 10-25 years. If they convicted him of first-degree murder he would go to prison for life.

This is what would happen if Richard Lee Richards had been shot by a teacher, or a construction worker, or a plumber.

This is also what would happen if Mr. Richards had been shot by a person who was houseless, or mentally ill, or suffering from a substance abuse disorder; in other words, if he had been shot by a client of the Public Defender's Office.

But Richards was shot by a police officer, and police do not have to suffer the indignities of the grocery clerk and nurse and poor person's justice system.

Mr. Remington gets to benefit from pro-police political pressure, and a powerful union which advocates for his freedom and pays for his lawyer. Mr. Remington's justice system awards him careful prosecutorial deliberation, slowed by checks and balances, to make sure he won't even be arrested unless PCAO first convinces itself he will be convicted in two or three years' time.

In no universe would a cashier or student or truck driver be recorded shooting a man in a wheelchair nine times in the back, and still be uncharged and walking free three months later.

Only people with badges get to enjoy a separate justice system engineered from the ground up to keep them free, no matter how many civilians die along the way.

If, at the end of all this, Mr. Remington is not charged with a crime the likely reason PCAO will give is "there isn't a strong likelihood of conviction."

What this means is PCAO will not even try to arrest and convict ex-Officer Ryan Remington, because they don't want to take the risk they might lose.

Yet prosecutors face no legal or financial penalty for losing a case. Remington will not be able to sue Pima County if, in the end, a jury decides he is not guilty.

There is no legal or financial downside to prosecuting a police officer caught on video shooting a man in a wheelchair nine times in the back.

Will the case be more difficult to win because Mr. Remington benefits from the policeman's justice system, and not ours? Absolutely.

But some cases and some causes are worth fighting for, even against long odds.

We may like to claim we are one community, but not taking a risk or even trying to obtain a conviction in such an egregious case as this validates the brutality and naked inequality of our two very different justice systems.

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