Officer faces manslaughter charges in killing of Black man at San Leandro Walmart

A fatal shooting inside a San Leandro Walmart resulted in rare criminal charges against a police officer in Alameda County.

District Attorney Nancy O'Malley announced Wednesday that Officer Jason Fletcher will be tried for felony voluntary manslaughter in the killing of Steven Taylor. 

"It is the intent of the legislature that police officers use deadly force only when necessary in defense of human life," said O'Malley in a video statement. 

Fletcher is a veteran officer and will be one of the first in California prosecuted under new state law that narrows the conditions in which fatal force can be used. 

"I don't know if my overall opinion of O'Malley has changed, her track record is her track record," said Jenna Hewitt King of San Leandro, and a member of the Justice 4 Steven Taylor Organizing Committee.

"Mostly I'm feeling shock, but also happy the Taylor family is seeing justice be served."

On April 18 Fletcher had responded to a call about an alleged shoplifter inside the Walmart store on Hesperian Boulevard who was holding a baseball bat.

Taylor, 33, was gripping a wooden baseball bat and unsteady on his feet. He also appeared confused.

Fletcher shouted, "back up, drop the bat man," as he approached Taylor and almost wrestles the bat away from him. 

Taylor seemed incoherent and his family said he was homeless and mentally ill. 

"In his own police report, the officer said Taylor wasn't stealing or up to any criminal misconduct, but in his words, seemed to be somebody who had lost touch with reality," said attorney S. Lee Merritt, who represents Taylor's family. 

Added King, a family friend, "Steven was not a threat. At no time did he swing the bat at anyone in the store or any police officer."  

RELATED: Activists want DA to 'do her job' following death of San Leandro man at Walmart

For almost five months, protesters have been pressuring city leaders, the police chief, and O'Malley to denounce the killing. Demonstrators have rallied at the police department, the courthouse, and the Walmart store. 

Taylor's grandmother has been vocal throughout.

"My objective is this should not happen to anyone," said Addie Kitchen, at a recent protest.  

"Being Black and homeless with mental issues should not be a death sentence and that's exactly what it was for my grandson."

San Leandro's Police Chief Jeff Tudor initially defended the shooting. As he released body camera video, Tudor noted Taylor did not comply with orders to put the bat down, even after being tased. 

Wednesday, after O'Malley's announcement, Tudor issued a statement saying in part: "The loss of Steven Taylor has deeply affected this community and it is important that we allow the judicial process to take its course."

Prosecutors say Fletcher did not wait for backup and instead grabbed the bat from Taylor, shot him with a Taser then shot him in the chest with his firearm, all in less than 40 seconds.

"Officer's Fletcher's actions, coupled with his failure to attempt other de-escalation options rendered his use of deadly force unreasonable," declared O'Malley.

Fletcher's attorney Michael Rains said the charges are "deeply disappointing." He said prosecutors have "essentially succumbed to mob rule." 

Rains insists Fletcher did all he could to de-escalate the situation, including talking to and tasering Taylor, who Rains describes as "aggressive."

Rains says the bat was a potentially lethal weapon and that "no officer should have to risk having his brains bashed out." 

But the Taylor family lawyer disagrees.

"Steven was under duress," said Merritt, "and that officer should have thought, 'what can I do to de-escalate and get this young man some help. And instead he led with the highest level of force the department has, a gunshot."

RELATED: Body-cam video released in deadly San Leandro police shooting

Activists also want the second officer on the scene to face consequences.  

"He showed up at the last moments as Steven was being shot and he ultimately tased him even though he had dropped the bat and was bleeding out," said King.  

San Leandro city leaders are promising to examine police culture and practices, spurred by Taylor's death and now O'Malley's decision. 

"To the community, I want to say that we understand the anger, frustration, and grief, this killing has brought to you and I assure you we will seek justice," concluded O'Malley in her statement. 

The family attorney believes state law, in combination with public outcry, left the district attorney with no choice but to prosecute. 

"These charges are a result of the organized activist community and their persistent voice," said Merritt, "and that's not a manipulation of the system, that is how a democracy is supposed to work."

Fletcher has been on paid administrative leave since the shooting, said San Leandro police Lt. Ted Henderson. The officer will be arraigned Sept. 15.

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