SAVANNAH — A police officer who fatally shot a handcuffed man won't face criminal charges after a grand jury concluded Wednesday that the suspect was armed with a handgun police missed while patting him down.
The grand jury heard from 45 witnesses and reviewed a Georgia Bureau of Investigation report of more than 2,000 pages in the shooting of 29-year-old Charles Smith last fall, Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap said.
"I believe the decision the grand jury made should lay this to rest," Heap told reporters at a courthouse news conference.
Savannah-Chatham County police officer David Jannot fatally shot Smith last Sept. 18 shortly after he had been handcuffed and placed in the back of the officer's patrol car. Police said that Smith's hands were cuffed behind his back but that he managed to move them to the front of his body. Smith then kicked out a car window and tried to escape. He was able to get out of the car.
The grand jury's four-page report said the officer shot Smith five times after the suspect fled the car with a gun in his hand. Jannot testified Smith "pointed the weapon as if to fire it," the report said, and Smith fell dead with the gun several inches from his hands. Lab tests confirmed Smith's DNA in skin cells were found on the gun's grip and at the base of its ammunition clip.
"Many Grand Jurors were appalled that the police did not find Smith's gun despite the fact at least three officers are seen on video frisking him," the report said. "... When the police are taking someone into custody who is known to carry a weapon, we would expect them to conduct a thorough search to include the crotch and groin."
Grand jurors recommended Savannah-Chatham police consider revising department procedures on searching suspects for weapons and transporting potentially violent suspects. Smith had struggled with several officers during his arrest before he was placed alone into a patrol car with Jannot.
Smith, who was black, was shot by the white officer barely a month after the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited a national outcry and raised questions about how race factors into police officers' split-second decisions to use lethal force. If there's a key distinction between the two cases, it's that investigators in Missouri confirmed Brown was unarmed.
Still, the shooting of Smith last fall prompted several days of protests in the streets of his Savannah neighborhood. Smith's mother, Penny Nelson, during one September rally said she didn't believe her son was armed. She added, "Y'all shot my baby for nothing."
An attorney for the family, Chadrick Mance, said Wednesday that Smith's relatives planned to wait a few days before commenting on the grand jury's findings.
"The family is taking it pretty rough right now," Mance said.
Jannot, who has served on the police force for a decade, had been on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation into the shooting.
Smith was arrested at a Savannah convenience store on warrants charging him with theft by receiving a stolen vehicle, eluding police, reckless driving and related counts. Video from surveillance cameras inside and outside the store showed officers patting Smith down before placing him into a patrol car. The shooting happened after the patrol car left the parking lot and was not captured by the store's security cameras.
Georgia Department of Corrections records show Smith had been released from prison on July 9, 2013, a little more than a year before he was killed. Smith served less than two years of a five-year sentence for aggravated assault, cocaine possession, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
It was Smith's third time serving in a Georgia prison. The previous sentences were for theft.