Monteria Robinson felt vindicated when local prosecutors filed felony murder charges last week against two officers in the killing of her mentally ill son, who was shot 59 times in an Atlanta-area apartment in 2016.
“What happened to my son was very heinous,” Robinson told NBC News. “We demand accountability.”
The officers — Eric Heinze, a deputy U.S. marshal, and Kristopher Hutchens, a Clayton County police officer — were working for a federal fugitive task force at the time they shot Robinson’s son, who the officers say brandished a weapon and presented a deadly threat.
The task force, one of dozens across the country, is made up of federal agents and local cops deputized with federal powers to cross state lines and track down people wanted on arrest warrants. The case marks what is believed to be the first time that a member of the U.S. Marshals Service has faced charges for a fatal shooting while on duty, an agency spokesman said.
But prosecutors have a steep hill to climb in securing a conviction for the two officers, or even a minor charge that sticks, according to former federal officials and civil rights lawyers. A complex web of decades-old U.S Supreme Court rulings and federal laws makes it exceedingly difficult for local prosecutors to successfully charge federal agents after a deadly encounter, even if they seem to have violated state law.
“The courts have created a number of special protections that shield these officers from any sort of accountability,” said Patrick Jaicomo, an attorney with the libertarian Institute for Justice who hasre the U.S. Supreme Court for more accountability over federal law enforcement. The first obstacle confronting local prosecutors is the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which says that states must defer to federal law. Federal judges have long accepted the argument that it shields federal agents from state prosecutions when an incident occurred while they were on duty, legal experts say.
Lawyers for the officers have already filed federal court papers and succeeded in getting the case transferred from state to federal court. In such cases, federal judges typically dismiss the charges on the grounds that state prosecutors cannot charge federal actors for state crimes, said Jaicomo and other experts.
Roy Austin, a former deputy assistant attorney general under President Barack Obama, said even if a federal judge decided to take on such a case, prosecutors would face another enormous hurdle unique to the federal system: proving that a law enforcement officer is guilty of “willfully” depriving someone of their civil rights.