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Charges ‘long shot’ in Niles shooting case

WARREN — A retired investigator with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department says he thinks chances are low that the Justice Department’s review of the Matthew Burroughs officer-involved killing will result in criminal charges against Niles police officers.

Officer Chris Mannella shot and killed Burroughs, 35, on Jan. 2, in front of Burroughs’ Royal Mall apartment in Niles as Burroughs drove into the complex after an earlier run-in with a probation officer outside of Niles Municipal Court.

Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins referred the investigation carried out by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation to the Justice Department about a month ago, after Watkins’ office announced that a Trumbull County grand jury had refused to indict Niles officers in the death.

Watkins said he decided to refer the investigation — the first he has referred to the Justice Department — because it involved a minority member of the community and a car was used as a weapon.

Members of the public have held demonstrations asking for “Justice for Matt.”

Lawrence Mitchell of Virginia retired in 2012 after a 25-year career with the Justice Department, about 11 years of which focused on investigating police department misconduct for the Civil Rights Division. He worked in Washington, D.C., investigating “pattern or practice” complaints.

Mitchell and Thomas Conley, president and CEO at Greater Warren Youngstown Urban League, collaborated in releasing a “critique” Mitchell wrote regarding the report Watkins released in September.

After summarizing the contents of the Watkins report, the critique indicated that more specific details, such as copies of “original documents,” are needed to “give light to what actually happened in the death of Matthew Burroughs.”

In an interview regarding the critique, Conley said he had questions about the shooting after seeing a still photo that is part of the investigation. The photo shows Burroughs after he had been shot, with his right foot on the brake pedal. He said it “leaves questions” as to why Mannella thought Burroughs was about to run him over with his car.

Watkins referred the investigation to the office of U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio Justin Herdman, who has held the position about two years.

Mitchell said it’s hard to tell how long it will take for the investigation to be completed.

Michael Tobin, spokesman for Herdman’s office, said he could not comment on the Burroughs referral, saying the only type of information he can provide on any criminal matter is: “If someone is charged, we will let somebody know.”

Watkins’ office said the referral went to David Toepfer, assistant U.S. attorney in the Youngstown office, who works under Herdman. Toepfer also formerly worked as an assistant Trumbull County prosecutor under Watkins.

Watkins said Toepfer told him the materials were referred to the Justice Department, and the office was “reviewing it.” Toepfer later clarified to the Tribune Chronicle that the referral went to another lawyer — not Toepfer — working in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio.

Toepfer also clarified that there is a Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., but each U.S. attorney has the authority to investigate potential civil rights violations within his or her jurisdiction, and that is what is happening with the Burroughs referral.

It is unknown whether the Civil Rights Division offices in Washington are involved in the case. A request for information to that office produced a response from Matt Lloyd, a public affairs officer, saying: “We cannot comment on ongoing investigations.”

Mitchell said it’s rare that the civil rights division in Washington would look at a case at the same time as a district office.

Overall, the priority the U.S. Justice Department now places on civil rights cases is “low” compared to when he worked there, Mitchell said, adding it even dropped in the latter years of the Barack Obama administration.

Mitchell said he reviewed investigative materials released by Watkins’ office in September.

One thing he would like to see are the “original documents” associated with the investigation. For example, Mitchell saw a videotaped interview of a probation officer involved in the incident at Niles Municipal Court.

In it, the probation officer could be seen handing written notes to the BCI investigator, Mitchell said. Comparing original notes to what a witness said in an interview can provide important information. “I would like to see the original document,” Mitchell said.

One of the most striking things he saw in the 35-page report produced by Watkins’ office was the way the report gave a lengthy background of Burroughs’ run-ins with law enforcement but portrayed Mannella favorably.

Mitchell said this is indicative of the reason he thinks a local prosecutor has an inherent conflict of interest in deciding the outcome of an officer-involved shooting.

He said he doesn’t expect the Justice Department’s review to lead to criminal charges because of Burroughs’ background. A police report from a few weeks before the shooting said a woman told Niles police that Burroughs was displaying a gun while throwing her and her son’s items out of his apartment.

“When you have a person with a background like Matthew Burroughs’, it’s a long shot, especially under the (President Donald Trump) administration,” Mitchell said.

erunyan@tribtoday.com

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