MARKSVILLE, La. (AP) — The head of the Louisiana State Police called it the most disturbing thing he has seen: a 6-year-old autistic boy’s lifeless body, strapped into the front seat of a car riddled with bullets fired by two law enforcement officers.
Video from a police officer’s body camera captured the burst of gunfire and gruesome aftermath of the shooting that killed Jeremy Mardis and critically wounded his father during a November 2015 traffic stop. The footage also showed the father with his hands raised inside his car as the deputy city marshals opened fire. At least four of their 18 shots tore into Jeremy.
“He didn’t deserve to die like that,” State Police Col. Mike Edmonson said as he announced the deputies’ arrests in the days after the shooting.
Sixteen months later, jury selection began Monday in Marksville the trial of Derrick Stafford, one of the two deputies charged with second-degree murder in the first-grader’s death. An initial 300 jurors were summoned to court, and questioning suggests many have seen the video.
Prosecutors say this bodycam video proves Jeremy’s unarmed father, Christopher Few, didn’t pose a threat to the deputies as they fired on his car from a safe distance.
Defense attorneys argue that Stafford and the other deputy, Norris Greenhouse Jr., acted in self-defense. They claim Few drove recklessly as he led deputies on a 2-mile chase and then rammed into Greenhouse’s vehicle as he exited it, before he and Stafford opened fire.
A State Police detective has testified there isn’t any physical evidence of Few’s car colliding with Greenhouse’s vehicle, but couldn’t rule that out as a possibility.
Jonathan Goins, one of Stafford’s attorneys, said his client feared for his life when he fired his semi-automatic pistol.
“My client wanted to go home and be with his family that night, just like any officer wants to go home and be with their family,” Goins said.
The shooting rocked Marksville and exposed tensions between law enforcement and residents of the central Louisiana town, which has a population of roughly 5,500.
“It’s been emotional. It’s been divisive,” said District Attorney Charles Riddle, who recused himself from the case because one of his top assistant prosecutors is Greenhouse’s father. “Law enforcement has taken some hits, but we have tried to address the complaints.”
Stafford, a Marksville police lieutenant, and Greenhouse, a former Marksville police officer, were moonlighting on the night of the shooting. Greenhouse awaits a separate trial on the same charges.
Marksville’s deputy city marshals are part-timers who normally serve court papers, but they had been stopping cars and writing traffic tickets for months before the shooting. City Marshal Floyd Voinche Sr. began dispatching his deputies on patrols amid a budget battle between the city’s mayor and an elected judge.
The 14-minute video only captured the tail end of the chase and lacks audio for the first 27 seconds. The deputies began shooting before the audio begins.
After the gunfire stopped, more than seven minutes elapsed before Marksville Police Sgt. Kenneth Parnell III — the officer wearing the body camera — checked on the boy and found a faint pulse. After donning surgical gloves, Parnell walked back to the boy’s side of the car and shone a flashlight on him again.
“Oh, my God,” he muttered.
Four minutes later, a paramedic told Parnell that the boy was dead.
Investigators traced 14 shell casings to Stafford’s gun and four other casings to Greenhouse’s gun. Three of the four bullet fragments recovered from Jeremy’s body matched Stafford’s weapon; another couldn’t be matched to either deputy.
Few’s credibility and state of mind at the time of the shooting also could be crucial for Stafford. His lawyers said Few had drugs in his system and had survived a suicide attempt only days earlier.
Before the shooting, both Stafford and Greenhouse had been sued over claims they had used excessive force or neglected their duties as police officers. The Marksville Police Department suspended Stafford after his indictment on rape charges in 2011, but reinstated him after prosecutors dismissed the charges.
Both deputies are black; Few is white, and so was his son.
“I don’t think there would have been such a rush to judgment if the officers had been white,” said Goins, a Stafford attorney.