By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
A jury recently found Police Officer Michael Edington not guilty after a week of deliberations in the two-year-old case surrounding the death of David Latham. Latham, an African-American, was shot by Edington during a domestic disturbance at his home in the Park Place section of Norfolk. Edington, a White officer, had been indicted by a special grand jury on the charge of manslaughter; however, Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Greg Underwood, who is African-American, failed to prove the charge to a jury composed of nine Whites, three Blacks and one Asian.
The incident occurred after Edington and two other officers responded to a 911 call at the house on West 30th Street on June 6, 2014. Relatives said Latham was threatening family members with a knife because one of them refused to share a bag of potato chips with him. When Edington, with his partner Dennis Conley and another officer Matthew Reichert, arrived at the scene, they found Latham standing in the doorway with a knife in his hand.
After a number of minutes, in which the officers demanded he drop it, Edington opened fire on Latham, five times. As Latham retreated into the house, his mother reported that the officer fired more shots striking him in the back. Edington testified in court, and his defense attorney continually emphasized throughout the trial, that the agitated Latham was a threat to him, his fellow officers, and his own family members who Edington thought were still in the house at the time.
Edington said before he fired his weapon, he could see someone standing at the foot of the stairs behind Latham who was in the door. Edington said he feared that Latham, who was about 10 feet away from him and Officer Reichert, would attack them. He said when Latham made a slight side step, he fired his weapon. The wounded Latham bent over and as he retreated into the house, he was struck again by a bullet from Edington’s gun.
Edington’s claim that Latham made a sudden movement toward the officers was countered by Reichert, who stood inches away from Edington, with his gun drawn too. Edington’s claim also was countered by Conley, who was standing farther to their right and was talking to Latham, seeking to get him to calm down and drop the knife. He said Latham did not move based on what they saw and where they were standing.
Underwood questioned how the Norfolk Police Department may have helped Edington secure an acquittal. Specifically, he attacked the testimony of Investigator Daryl Jarvis, who was one of the main investigators of the Latham case for the department. Underwood revealed that although Jarvis testified on the stand he was told by Edington that Latham made a movement, he did not write it down nor did he record Edington’s claim that he saw Latham make a move which indicated he was about to attack him and his colleagues.
Also, the prosecution sought to point out that Edington may have been emotionally upset prior to the June 6 shooting, due to the death of fellow Officer Brian Jones, shot to death on May 30. Conley and other officers reported they had heard or seen Edington crying uncontrollably several times after that incident and they and their supervisor advised him to take time off and get counseling for his emotional pain. One officer stated that Edington may have been unfit for patrol duty.
But while the prosecution tried to paint Edington as emotionally distributed, his defense attorney countered that Latham was emotionally disturbed too, suffering from schizophrenia and bi-polar disease and may have been off his meds on the night he died and struck out at his family. Police had responded to the Latham house before due to outbursts by David Latham, but on those encounters, they had managed to quiet him and helped him secure emergency psychiatric care.
Local Latham supporters, disappointed in the jury’s not guilty decision, have questioned the appearance of a member of the Norfolk NAACP on the stand, as a supportive character witness for Edington. Rick James, the Chair of the Norfolk NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee, taught Edington in a class at Tidewater Community College several years ago. James told the Guide he was told by the court and Edington’s lawyer that his appearance was as a witness about Edington’s character as a TCC student. He said he has recused himself from testifying about any police-related issues to the case.
But to activists like Michael Muhammad, who is the official spokesperson for the Latham family, James’ appearance on the stand for the defense, may have been intentional as a ploy to misinterpret him as representing the NAACP. If so, that could have led to and contributed to the sympathetic view of many of the jury members about Edington’s claim. He has questioned whether that strategy may have been the winning formula Edington’s defense attorney needed to sway a jury which was 71 percent White and dominated by White males. The Latham family has filed a multi-million dollar wrongful death suit against Edington, who is still on desk duty. The Norfolk Police Department is still investigating the case and seeking to determine Edington’s future with the department.