DETROIT, MI — A Special Response Team shattered a family’s window in the middle of the night, hurled a flashbang onto a couch next to a sleeping girl, then charged in and shot her in the head. The hyper-aggressive tactics were made worse by the fact that police had taken it upon themselves to raid both sides of a duplex, when their suspect was only known to reside in one of them.
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On the evening of May 16, 2010, the Detroit Police Department’s Special Response Team (SRT) prepared for a surprise raid to arrest a wanted man. A surveillance unit had been monitoring the duplex in which he lived throughout the day and a no-knock raid was scheduled for just after midnight.
Police staged a so-called “safety briefing” shortly before the raid; undoubtedly focusing on their own safety rather than the safety of unknown innocents behind the doors they were about to kick in. Officers were briefed that they’d be entering a “possible dope den,” in which the suspect “might be armed” and might even possess “dangerous dogs.”
Police neglected to account for — or flatly disregarded — the safety of any potential children that might be present. Besides the glaring presence of toys strewn about the lawn and front porch, it is unlikely that investigators could have missed the presence of four young children and multi-generational family in the opposite unit during their surveillance of the duplex.
The raid commenced at roughly 12:40 a.m. The Special Response Team arrived in its armored vehicle with a warrant to arrest Chauncey Owens, who was known to stay with his fiancée at 4056 Lillibridge Street.
Armed with MP5 submachine guns, adrenaline, and an unhealthy fear for officer safety, the raiders shuffled past the toys that littered the front yard and ignored the two distinct street address signs hanging on either side of the shared porch of the multi-unit building; 4056 was on the left, 4054 was on the right.
A man named Mark Robinson was detained on the sidewalk while walking his dog, just before the raid. He repeatedly told officers, “There are children in the house,” yet his warnings went unheeded. He was pinned to the ground with officers’ boots on his neck and back, reported attorney Geoffrey Fieger.
The raid team was accompanied by an embedded cable TV crew, filming for A&E’s “The First 48.” With full bravado, the SRT put on a display of maximum force for the fans of police-state-adoring reality television.
Without warning, officers simultaneously attempted to breach entrances of two discrete living units of the duplex: the suspects’ location and the neighboring residence. What occurred at 4054 Lillibridge — where the suspect did NOT live — would be devastating.
In mere seconds, masked police officers stormed the porch and smashed the window of the neighbors’ downstairs apartment. They immediately tossed in a concussion grenade and kicked down the door. An officer discharged his rifle, and an innocent little girl named Aiyana Stanley-Jones was dead.
Amateur footage shot from the exterior of the building shows how quickly the raid unfolded:
From the footage above, the following timeline can be assessed:
- 0:24 — A dog detects the presence of police and begins to bark.
- 0:27 — Police being shouting indiscernibly.
- 0:28 — An officer uses a bludgeon to shatter the picture window of Aiyana’s residence. A flashbang grenade is thrown in immediately.
- 0:29 — The flashbang explodes inside Aiyana’s residence, lighting up the porch.
- 0:33 — A pop can be heard; presumably the fatal gunshot.
When the smoke cleared, 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was found on the couch, covered with blood, with a gunshot to the head. She had been sleeping on the couch next to her grandmother, Mertilla Jones. A mere 3 seconds passed from the time of the first shouts until officers entered the home. Aiyana was shot in six seconds.
The grenade had fallen directly onto the couch, where it scorched Aiyana’s “Hannah Montana” blanket, and caused Ms. Jones to dive for the floor.
The trigger man was 37-year-old Officer Joseph Weekley, who both drove the armored personnel carrier and led the team through Jones’s door. Wielding a ballistic shield and an MP5, the 14-year DPD veteran claimed that he lost control of his weapon, but not for the reason one would expect. He blamed Aiyana’s grandma.
Officer Weekley’s novel defense was that Mertilla Jones rose up as he entered the apartment and “reached for his gun.” In his version of events, contact with grandmother caused him to pull the trigger of his submachine gun, subsequently striking the sleeping girl.
Mertilla Jones gave a very different account. She said that she had been dozing in and out of sleep on the couch when she was startled by the shattering of glass and the deafening incendiary device hurled through the window. Ms. Jones claims she reached to protect her granddaughter and made no contact with any officer, according to the Detroit Free Press.
“They blew my granddaughter’s brains out,” said Ms. Jones. “They killed her right before my eyes. I watched the light go out of her eyes.”
Officer Weekley was no stranger to controversy. Previously during his six years on the Special Response Team, he had been named among several officers in a federal lawsuit regarding no-knock raid in which officers aimed rifles at small children and shot two family pets in 2007.
In addition to Aiyana, three other children were in the house at the time: Carlos (age four), Pierre (age two), and Christian (age three months). The capacity for mistakes in such a household was monumental.
Aiyana’s parents, Charles Jones and Dominika Stanley, were sleeping nearby and rushed toward the sound of the loud noise and tragic screams. Mr. Jones was forced to lie on the floor, face-down in his daughter’s blood and shards of broken glass.
“Her blood was everywhere and I was trying to stay calm, but nobody would talk to me. None of them even tried to console me,” Mr. Jones told The Detroit News. “I’ll never be the same.”
Ms. Stanley testified similarly that she was forced to sit on the couch spattered with her daughter’s blood for hours while police detained the family at the scene.
Mertilla Jones was not initially detained, despite the claim that she supposedly tried to steal Officer Weekley’s weapon. Before the night was over, however, police decided to cuff her and hauled her down to Detroit Receiving, where she was tested for drugs in her system and later for gunshot residue on her skin. She sorrowfully recalled being detained for at least 8 hours, away from her family on perhaps the most traumatic day of their lives.
The family says it took hours for them to be shown a warrant — not until “about 4 or 5 a.m., as they were driving away” (more on the warrant later).
The actual homicide suspect was arrested in the apartment upstairs without incident.
DISTORTING THE FACTS
One of the major deceptions permeating the coverage of this case was the notion that Aiyana lived in the same residence as the subject of the search warrant. This was plainly false, as the building was a duplex with separate units, not connected internally whatsoever.
Attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who represented Aiyana’s family, stressed during a press conference that various facts were being distorted by the police and media.
“[Police] were going into both doors,” Mr. Fieger said. “The upstairs flat is on the left. Aiyana’s flat — where I want to stress that Mr. Chauncy Owens did not reside, never resided, never stayed — is on the right.”
Furthermore, police charged into the raid with an improper warrant to search both units, Mr. Fieger asserted. After improperly raiding both living units, police went back and covered their mistake by acquiring a retroactive search warrant for the second half. The official story glossed over that detail.
Feiger explained: “In the video they break into both the upstairs flat and the downstairs flat. The problem is they don’t have a warrant for the upstairs. (Assistant Police Chief Ralph Godbee) didn’t tell you when he got the second search warrant. After Aiyana was killed and after he broke into the upstairs apartment and arrested (the suspect).”
Another falsehood was the department’s claim that Aiyana was shot in the neck. In fact, Aiyana was shot in the top of the skull, with the bullet exiting through the bottom of her chin, then grazing her chest.
The third, and most dubious claim, was the story that Aiyana’s grandmother tried to grab the officer’s gun and caused it to fire, under no fault of Officer Weekley. The district attorney’s office did not find the officer’s story credible and charged him with felony involuntary manslaughter and careless discharge of a firearm causing death.
REALITY TV STAR
America’s fetish with the police state may have indirectly played a role in the unnecessary, hyper-aggressive tactics employed against Aiyana and in other situations in Detroit. Author William N. Grigg astutely observed the following:
The truly sickening thing about the death of Aiyana Jones is that the decision to carry out a SRT raid was almost certainly dictated by the media ambitions of Detroit Police Chief Warren Evans, who — in the words of Detroit News columnist Charlie LeDuff — is positioning himself as a “reality TV” star.
“Television executives around the country have been shown what is known in television parlance as the `sizzle reel’ of Chief Evans himself, a video compilation of Detroit’s top cop trying to take back the streets,” writes LeDuff, who saw that footage several weeks ago. “It is part of a pitch for a full-blown television series.”
As Detroit’s civic and economic implosion accelerates, the city has become an irresistible setting for state-centric media outlets “peddling mayhem,” continues LeDuff. “Spike TV featured the Detroit bureau of the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008. A&E is taping a season of `Parking Wars’ here; production on a series about the Fire Department wrapped late last year. Even Animal Planet is in on the deal with `Animal Cops Detroit.’”
Joseph Weekley had himself been featured numerous times on various Detroit-based police reality shows. His cop nickname was “Brain.”
WEEKLEY’S 1ST TRIAL
At the June 2013 trial, Joseph Weekley’s defense stuck with the argument that the victim’s grandmother was to blame for his sloppy weapons-handling.
“She hit it in a downward motion,” Weekley said of his submachine gun during testimony at his first trial, according to the Associated Press. “As she hits it down, I start to pull it back. I hear the shot.”
Weekley’s defense argued that he should not be scapegoated for behavior linked to the missteps of his bosses. His attorney, Steve Fishman, said in court filings that Weekley “had nothing to do with the planning of the raid and was merely a police officer assigned to a certain position … by a superior officer.” He argued that his client should not be deemed responsible for the “ineptitude of the officer assigned to deploy” the flashbang.
Aiyana’s grandmother was the key witness at the trial. Her testimony marked the fifth day of the emotional testimonies.
“That’s what I figured all of them was there to do — to murder. They came to kill, and they killed a 7-year-old,” Mertilla Jones testified. Breaking down sobbing, she described the raid, saying “their arm was pointed at Aiyana’s head. They pulled the trigger. Blood started coming out of her mouth. She was dead.”
The jury was then excused for about 15 minutes.
Prosecutor Rob Moran closed his argument by emphasizing that Weekley’s story was fabricated to cover for gross negligence.
“It didn’t happen. It did not happen,” Moran stressed, arguing the implausibility of Mertilla Jones rushing for the door in mere seconds after the window broke.
“All he had to do was keep his finger off the trigger,” Moran pointed out, which is among the most elementary of firearms safety rules.
In the end, the jury was hung, and Wayne County Circuit Judge Cynthia Gray Hathaway declared it to be a mistrial.
WEEKLEY’S 2ND TRIAL
Officer Joseph Weekley stood trial for a second time in September 2014. This time the more serious charge of manslaughter was dismissed, and Weekley’s trial revolved around the charge of careless or reckless firing of a weapon causing death, which carries a potential 2 year prison sentence.
Prosecutor Rob Moran again poked holes in the police narrative. If Mertilla Jones grabbed for Weekley’s gun, as the officer alleged, then why did it take hours for police to place her in handcuffs, he asked. Wouldn’t police detain and arrest her immediately?
The prosecution also showed using forensic evidence that Mertilla Jones’ fingerprints were not among those found on Weekley’s gun.
Jurors ultimately deadlocked in a 7-5 split in favor of acquittal and could not agree about whether Weekley was negligent or not. Deliberations went on for four days.
Judge Hathaway again declared it to be a mistrial in October 2014 when no unanimous verdict could be reached. At this point, prosecutors could either attempt a third trial, or decline to proceed with further prosecution.