District attorney rubber-stamps slaying of Denis Reynoso by Lynn police

October 5, 2013: Family members and supporters of Denis Reynoso rallied outside the Lynn Police Station to protest Reynoso's killing. On September 5 of last year, police officers entered the apartment of Lynn resident Denis Reynoso without a warrant and shot him to death in front of his five-year-old son.

Reynoso was an Iraq war veteran, former Post Office employee, and father. He hoped to get a job as a firefighter and was engaged to Jessica Spinney, who lived together with him at the apartment.

Since Reynoso was shot in September, family members and other supporters have organized numerous rallies to protest the shooting, most of which we attended.

After nearly five months, Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett finally released his report on the shooting on Tuesday. The report claims that the police officers who killed Reynoso were legally justified, meaning that the district attorney will not bring any criminal charges against any of the three officers involved in the shooting.

The report, which is only four-and-a-half pages long, shows that investigators failed to conduct a thorough, impartial investigation and that District Attorney Blodgett was more interested in rubber-stamping the actions of the police than in uncovering the truth about Reynoso's slaying.

According to the report, numerous people saw a man exhibiting strange behavior and yelling at people, leading at least one person to call the police. Some of the witnesses identified the man as Denis Reynoso and a postal worker pointed the police to Reynoso's apartment. Police knocked on the door and followed Reynoso inside after he answered it. After the police entered, Reynoso grabbed one of the officer's guns and tried to kill to them, managing to fire two shots that didn't hit anyone. One of the officers then shot Reynoso, who later died in a hospital.

The report identifies, for the first time, the three police officers responsible for Reynoso's death. The fatal shot was fired by Officer Joshua Hilton and Officers John Bernard and Paul Scali were also present.

Police enter Reynoso's home without warrant

Blodgett’s report begins by citing a string of people who supposedly told police prior to the shooting that a shirtless man was yelling at people at people, beating his chest, and running after cars in the area outside the apartment complex where Reynoso and his family lived. The report does not provide the names of any of these witnesses or include transcripts of the interviews that investigators conducted, making it impossible to verify any of the information.

The report indicates that most of the witnesses did not know who the person was and could not identify him by name. The report claims that a neighbor identified the man as Reynoso. A postal worker also identified the man as Reynoso and said he recognized him from delivering his mail and because Reynoso used to work for the Post Office. The postal worker also told police that Reynoso was a veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress.

While Reynoso's behavior may have been disturbing to those around him, it's not clear that anything he was accused of doing is a crime. Furthermore, there was no ongoing disturbance or threat when police arrived and none of the police had any firsthand knowledge of Reynoso's alleged behavior.

The report also indicates that Reynoso told the police that he did not want them in his apartment. According to the report, when Reynoso opened the front door to his apartment, he told one of the officers that he "didn't need his fucking help." Nevertheless, the officers, who did not have a warrant to arrest Reynoso or search his home, followed Reynoso into the apartment.

The report provides no legal justification for why the officers entered the apartment without Reynoso's permission. The report also fails to explore the issue of whether or not Reynoso had the right to defend himself against the armed strangers who barged into his home uninvited.

Investigators ignore crucial eyewitness

When the police shot Denis Reynoso, his five-year-old son was present in the room. The report states that the officers did not notice Reynoso's son until they saw him hiding under a blanket on a couch after the shooting. Jessica Spinney has said that her son was so close to the shooting that he ended up covered in Reynoso's blood.

While it's true that children are not as reliable witnesses as adults, Reynoso's son is the only living non-police eyewitness, making him a crucial witness in the case. However, investigators never bothered to interview him. The report does not even indicate that any attempts were made to set up an interview with him nor does it explain why he was not interviewed.

Instead of basing his description of the events leading up to the shooting on interviews with all the eyewitnesses, the district attorney simply based his narrative on the story told by the police. The report does not include transcripts of the interviews with the three police officers, so it's impossible to say whether the stories they told investigators were consistent with each other. The report never once questions the credibility of the police even though they were the ones the district attorney was supposed to be investigating for potential criminal behavior.

According to the report, the police claimed that Reynoso, an Iraq war veteran, was able to disarm Officer Bernard, place the gun against the side of Bernard's head with the intent to kill him, fire the gun, and fail to hit his target. This led to a struggle during which Reynoso managed to fire a second shot (and miss again) and was laughing, making threatening comments, and managed to point the gun at one of the officers again but did not shoot him. The report claims that Officer Scali was deafened by the second shot and bitten on the arm by Reynoso, but does not include any medical evidence that either of these things happened. The officers said they feared they were going to be killed by Reynoso, so Officer Hilton shot him.

The report claims that Reynoso was able to easily disarm Officer Bernard because his holster was missing a screw and was "somewhat worn," allowing his gun to be pulled out of the holster freely and quickly. The report does not explain how Officer Bernard – a trained police officer and former Blackwater employee – failed to notice that his holster was not functioning properly. It's also worth noting that Reynoso, who had experience handling firearms, had no way of knowing that the holstered weapon was unsecured, so the report's description of him "lunging" at Officer Bernard in an attempt to take the gun makes little sense.

DA's report explains away physical evidence

Physical evidence analyzed by investigators failed to corroborate the officers' claim that Reynoso took one of their guns and fired it, however, the district attorney attempted to explain the evidence away.

The report states that no gunshot residue was found on Reynoso's hands. Instead of concluding that Reynoso did not fire the weapon, the district attorney cites an unnamed "forensic scientist" who speculated that "when Reynoso was prepped for surgery, the cleansing might have removed the residue, and testing was done after 4 hours elapsed and is considered unreliable at that point."

The report does not explain why medical personnel – who were treating Reynoso for a gunshot wound to the abdomen – would have washed his hands. It does not indicate that investigators made any attempt to ask medical personnel whether or not they washed Reynoso's hands nor does it explain why investigators took so long to test his hands for the residue. The report also does not indicate that any of the three officers involved in the shooting were tested for the presence of gunshot residue.

The report also states that the gun Reynoso was accused of taking from the police was tested for DNA, however, the tests failed to tie Reynoso to the gun. The report still vaguely concludes that "[t]he DNA profile is a mixture of at least three people and Reynoso cannot be excluded as a possible contributor to this mixture."

DA's report includes irrelevant, prejudicial information

According to the report, the sole purpose of the DA's investigation "was to determine if the fatal shooting of Mr. Reynoso by an on-duty police officer was legally justified."

The report further states that "[t]o be a lawful use of deadly force, the actions of the officers must be objectively reasonable, given all of the facts and circumstances confronting them at the scene. The determination of such reasonableness is judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene and in that moment in time and not through the perspective of hindsight" (emphasis added).

Despite these statements, the report is filled with irrelevant information, most of which was not known to police at the time of the shooting. All of this information appears to be included for the sole reason of disparaging Reynoso.

For instance, the report states that when medical personnel were trying to tend to Reynoso after the shooting, he tried to bite a firefighter and acted "combative." The report does not attribute these claims to any specific witnesses.

The report also states that after the shooting, police "observed that the apartment, aside from the area of the struggle, had been trashed – furniture smashed and destroyed," inviting people to assume that Reynoso was responsible for the damage.

The report also states that police found a bag of marijuana in an upstairs bedroom after the shooting and that a toxicology report indicated that Reynoso tested positive for THC.

While the district attorney tried to paint Reynoso as a violent, mentally ill drug user, he made no such attempt to discredit the police involved in the shooting even though they were the ones he was supposed to be investigating for potential criminal behavior. The report does not indicate that investigators made any attempt to test the police for drugs or alcohol. The report does not say anything about the mental health of the police officers or provide any information about their disciplinary records.

Report does not explore how shooting could have been avoided

If we take the district attorney's conclusion that shooting of Reynoso was justified at face value, we are still left with the question of whether the shooting was really necessary. Even if the police did not commit any crimes when they confronted Reynoso and shot him to death, they still might have made mistakes.

Given that police knew Reynoso was a resident at the apartment complex and had reason to believe that he might have been suffering from post-traumatic stress and acting unpredictably, they could have tried to obtain contact information for his family from the property managers to try to find ways of de-escalating a potential confrontation with him. The police could have also tried to call mental health and medical professionals to the scene to assist them.

Instead, the report suggest that the police escalated a confrontation with Reynoso by following him into his home even as he angrily insisted that he didn't want their help.

The shooting might have been avoided if police had approached the situation differently, yet the report does not suggest any alternative courses of action the police could have taken or recommend that the police receive more training on how to deal with people suffering from mental illness.

The police department still has the chance to produce a report explaining how the shooting could have been avoided. According the DA's report, the shooting has been "referred to the Lynn Police Department for whatever internal administrative review is deemed appropriate."

However, Lynn Police Chief Kevin Coppinger has already stated publicly that he agrees with the DA's decision and that he doesn't think the officers could have done anything different.

"I do agree with the district attorney that it was justified," Coppinger told The Daily Item. "They went in to talk to the individual, and if somebody is acting in that kind of behavior, based on a number of witness statements, [the officers] couldn’t just walk away, both in the interest of public safety, people who may have been in the home and for Mr. Reynoso's potential well-being."

The only lesson the chief seems willing to draw from Reynoso's death is that he needs to buy better holsters for his officers.

Conclusion

Regardless of what the truth about the police shooting of Denis Reynoso is, it's clear that Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett was not interested in it. His report is a whitewash which ignores one of the most important witnesses, explains away physical evidence that contradicts the police, and is replete with irrelevant information that was included solely to disparage and discredit Reynoso.

Although the quality of the Blodgett's report is shameful, his conclusion that the police were justified in killing Reynoso after invading his home without any legal justification is unsurprising. The magazine CommonWealth reported earlier this year that between 2002 and 2013, there were at least 73 fatal police shootings in Massachusetts and district attorneys never once prosecuted an officer responsible for shooting someone to death during that time period.

Blodgett's investigation has not been anywhere near transparent enough to be credible. Blodgett should release all the information he collected as part of his investigation of the Denis Reynoso shooting to the public, including transcripts of all the witness interviews and copies of all the reports he cited.

Investigations of police shootings are colored by the fact that district attorneys have a vested interest in clearing the police of wrongdoing. Blodgett's ability to successfully prosecute cases relies on the credibility of the police departments in his district. If a major issue with members of the Lynn Police Department, or any of the other police departments in his district, were to be exposed, past cases prosecuted by Blodgett's office could be overturned and future pending cases might have to be thrown out.

The recent case of Annie Dookhan, the former state police chemist who faked lab test results in drug cases, shows that a single faulty step in the criminal justice system can affect thousands of cases. Years after Dookhan was first brought to light, her actions are still reverberating through the Massachusetts justice system.

A new investigation should be opened in Reynoso's death, but it should be conducted by an investigative body that does not have any connection to the Lynn Police Department.

Essex County District Attorney's Report on the Police Shooting of Denis Reynoso