Erie County District Attorney John Flynn says his office, at the conclusion of its investigation, finds that a Buffalo Police officer was justified when he shot a suspect who was fleeing from an alleged shoplifting incident in the early morning hours of Dec. 12.
Flynn hosted a news conference late Thursday morning and, before announcing that Officer Joseph Meli was cleared of any wrongdoing, delivered a lengthy explanation of the events which unfolded the night Marcus Neal was shot shortly after fleeing a Wegmans on Amherst Street.
Flynn explained that the suspect, Marcus Neal, was suspected by store staff at Wegmans of lifting several toiletries, then fleeing, in the late hours of December 11. A Buffalo Police officer, B District Lieutenant Karin Turello, was in the vicinity by happenstance according to Flynn, getting something to eat before the start of an overnight shift but was flagged down by employees and alerted of the alleged theft.
After Turello in called the complaint, other officers including Meli responded and, shortly after, the suspect was spotted several blocks away. A foot pursuit ensued and, now into the early morning hours of December 12, led to a rooftop in the area of Gladstone and Deer Streets in the Military-Hertel area of the city.
Flynn used a large map to point where the chase led and told reporters that a civilian witnessed portions of the pursuit.
"He specifically says that he sees stuff kind of falling out of the suspect and there were, in fact, some of the toiletry items that he had allegedly taken that were found in the backyards," the DA explained.
The witness, Flynn added, observed officers carrying flashlights but none had weapons drawn. The chase led to a rooftop and a deck which was previously attached to a since-removed above-ground pool. Neal had been spotted on a garage roof. Some officers positioned themselves on the pool deck while three others, including Meli, got on the roof in an attempt to capture the suspect.
"The senior officer on the scene, Lt. Turello, who was the one at Wegmans, she gives the order to have someone mace him," Flynn said. "Officer Hedberg pulls out his mace and sprays him with mace."
Neal, according to Flynn, wiped off the mace and remained in an agitated state. He set down the backpack he was carrying and, according to the DA pulled out a small folding knife. Investigators say Neal began cutting himself and, when urged to stop, the suspect allegedly told officers they would have to shoot him.
Flynn says officers testified that Neal lunged at Meli who, after warnings to put down the knife, fired his gun and struck Neal twice in the abdominal area and once in the buttocks. An ambulance arrived on the scene and Neal was transported to a nearby hospital but died several hours later.
The DA says police, by using mace, did attempt to end the situation without lethal violence. After his lengthy presentation, Flynn stated that Meli had the right to shoot in order to defend his life.
"I'm not sitting here saying that the police are right here in all cases. Obviously, across the country we've seen that they're not right all of the time," he told reporters. "In this case here, they were 100 percent right and 100 percent justified."
Present at the news conference was Donald Thompson, an attorney representing Neal's family. He spoke to reporters elsewhere in the Erie County Courhouse, saying that the family does not have immediate plans to file civil action but they want to see the more detailed information Flynn disclosed. Thompson says much of what was revealed Thursday was new to him and the family, and more detailed than the explanation they received from the DA's office.
"We don't have the specifics that were alluded to by the District Attorney at this point," Thompson said. "We have some information that a witness heard someone yelling 'Joe, no! Joe, don't!' just before the shooting. Obviously, the officer's name is Joe. We don't know what that related to specifically or who was making those statements."
Thompson says he anticipates receiving the DA's information "in short time."
Flynn also stated that a toxicology test was performed on Neal which found the presence of controlled substances in his system but did not identify them, "out of respect for the family."