Prince George’s County Officer Acquitted in Fatal Shooting of Handcuffed Man

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post
Nikki Owens comforts her aunt Brenda Green during a September 2020 news conference announcing that the family would receive a $20 million settlement in the killing of William Green.

Michael Owen Jr., the first Prince George’s County police officer to be charged with murder for actions taken in uniform, was found not guilty on all the counts he faced in the fatal shooting of a handcuffed man, including second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.

The case hinged upon whether Owen, who fatally shot 43-year-old William Green six times while the man had his hands cuffed behind his back, pulled the trigger in self-defense on the night of the Jan. 27, 2020, shooting. Prosecutors argued at trial that Green, who had been found earlier passed out in a car, posed no threat and that Owen failed to “respect the sanctity of human life” by firing his service weapon at the man. But Owen, who testified in his own defense this week and had fatally shot someone earlier in his career, asserted that there was a violent struggle in the car and that he shot Green to protect himself.

The jury, which heard five days of testimony in the historic case, also found Owen not guilty of assault, use of a handgun in commission of a felony and misconduct in office. As the verdict was being read, a commotion broke out in the courtroom. Family from both sides burst into shouts and wails. One woman collapsed and vomited, and one man was punched and knocked unconscious. The man who punched him was detained by sheriff’s deputies in the courtroom, an encounter in which one of the deputies activated a Taser.

“I can’t believe that man killed my son and got away with it,” Green’s mother, Brenda Green, said in court before later remarking in disbelief, “Oh my God, they let that murderer off scot-free and mark my word he’s going to kill somebody else because he’s done it before.”

The verdict – which came shortly after the jury deliberated for about an hour and a half Wednesday afternoon – is the culmination of a criminal case four years in the making, delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, court issues and a proposed plea deal offered to Owen by the state’s attorney’s office. That plea deal was made public by the victim’s family – who wanted details of the shooting to be aired in a public trial – and then rejected by Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge Michael Pearson.

Green’s killing and Owen’s subsequent arrest ignited calls for police reform in the majority-Black Washington-area suburb in Maryland, where the police department has long had a fraught history of excessive force and misconduct. After Green was killed, his family won a $20 million settlement from county officials – believed to be one of the largest payouts for police misconduct in the United States at the time it was awarded.

Before the fatal shooting, Owen’s supervisors were unaware that he had sought workers’ compensation for psychological difficulties stemming from a fatal shooting early in his career, department officials said, even though Owen was supposed to notify them. Over the next decade, Owen used force against civilians at least nine times, according to a Washington Post examination of his career. The Green family’s lawyer Billy Murphy said seven other people in four separate incidents also won a $1.5 million settlement from the county after they filed lawsuit related to encounters with Owen.

On the night of Green’s killing, Owen and a fellow officer with the Prince George’s County Police Department were called to respond to a vehicle crash in the Temple Hills area. They found Green, who was under the influence of alcohol and PCP, unconscious behind the wheel of his car, which had crashed into a tree after striking several other vehicles.

The officers removed Green from the car, cuffed his hands behind his back and patted him down for weapons. Finding none, Owen escorted the man into the front seat of his police cruiser. Before putting the man in the car, he conducted a second partial pat-down.

After 20 to 30 minutes, authorities said, Owen fired his gun at Green seven times, with six of the bullets striking Green. One shot hit him in the right side of his body, and the other five were fired at close range into the area of his left armpit. Green’s hands were cuffed behind his back the entire time.

What happened inside the police cruiser, where Owen and Green sat alone, was the core matter that jurors were asked to weigh in this case.

Defense attorneys, citing Owen’s own testimony, argued that there was a violent struggle inside the car in which Green attacked Owen, body-slammed the officer, grabbed his gun and pointed it at him. One shot was fired as the men fought for possession of the gun, Owen and his attorneys said, and the other six shots followed in self-defense.

But during closing arguments, prosecutors pushed back against the account Owen gave the jury.

“Ladies and gentlemen, that did not happen,” Principal Deputy State’s Attorney Jason Abbott said. “It’s impossible.”

Abbott offered a different precipitating scenario, one he told the jury was rooted in the evidence and facts presented at trial. He said there was “no evidence” of an attack or struggle outside or inside the car. Owen reported no injuries in the aftermath of the shooting, and Abbott explained away scrapes on Green’s left arm and leg as possible injuries from the car accident.

Abbott said only one person who testified at trial said there was a struggle, and it was Owen.

Owen’s attorney Thomas Mooney said prosecutors were engaging in “Monday-morning quarterbacking” of “whether his actions were reasonable.” He said the police rushed to judgment when they charged Owen and asserted that police and prosecutors didn’t do their due diligence in the case. “They’re under-informed because they didn’t investigate,” he said.

“The officer was trained to shoot and was trying to neutralize the threat,” Mooney said.

He fired, the attorney said, “because he thought he was going to die.”

Mooney said that Green’s choice to drive under the influence and allegedly attack Owen in the car “showed that Mr. Green did not respect the sanctity of human life, his own or Cpl. Owen’s.”

In closing arguments, Mooney also raised concerns about a video taken by a witness on scene. The woman who recorded the video had handed it over to police and that it had captured audio but not visuals of the shooting. Police, however, never turned the material over to the State’s Attorney’s Office, prosecutors said, and it was not shown in court. Mooney said such evidence at trial could have corroborated that Owen fired his gun in rapid succession in self defense. During instructions to the jury, the judge said they could presume that the video may have been withheld because it didn’t help the state’s case.

Mooney did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening after the trial.

After the verdict, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy (D) said her office was disappointed with the outcome and called Owen’s version of events “outrageous” and “certainly implausible.”

“We believe that Cpl. Owen committed a crime that night, and he did in fact murder William Green,” Braveboy said. “However, the burden is on the state, and it is a very high burden. There were only two people in the vehicle that night that could tell us what happened, and unfortunately one of them is no longer with us.”

Braveboy said the case was “not a slam-dunk” and prosecutors said that while they knew Owen fired, they could not give jurors a theory for why. At the very end of closing arguments, prosecutors had said Owen became angered after Green urinated in the officer’s cruiser. But prosecutors had not mentioned such a potential motive earlier at trial.

“We have to then look at the fact that we did have a police officer who duly arrested someone who did cause several accidents and was high on PCP or at least had PCP in their system,” Braveboy said. “When you look at the combination of all of those factors it does raise questions, a question of which we cannot answer because we were not there.”

Green’s cousin, Nikki Owens, has spent the past four years fighting for police reform following the shooting. After the verdict, she wept outside the courthouse.

“To know that in 2020 you can handcuff a man, put him in the front seat of a police car and kill him is disheartening,” she said, later adding, “There is no justice in this country for Black and Brown people. This is proof. I don’t know how bad it has to get for police to be held accountable for their actions. What the jury said today was police can kill with impunity.”