The family of a Colorado teenager filed a lawsuit Thursday accusing an off-duty corrections officer of using deadly force “recklessly” and “without warning” when he fatally shot the teen in his backyard as a group of friends were fleeing the scene of a home break-in.
The wrongful death complaint filed in Denver District Court comes four months after the death of Alexis Mendez-Perez, 16, and more than two months after Denver District Attorney Beth McCann declined to file charges against the shooter, Desmond Manning, 46, who was a state Department of Corrections criminal investigator at the time. He was no longer with the department as of July, a spokeswoman confirmed.
McCann said she believed there wasn’t enough evidence to compel a jury to find Manning guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt and prove he wasn’t acting in self-defense.
But the family of Mendez-Perez said it does not think Manning was justified when he chose to confront the teen, who they say was not a threat, and shoot at him in Manning’s backyard.
The case has fueled protests in Denver against racial injustice and calls to “defund the police.”
A second teen whom Manning shot in the leg is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. The teen and Mendez-Perez’s family are seeking compensatory damages.
“We want justice — not for them to be let off the hook right away,” Ana Mendez, an older sister of Mendez-Perez, said of law enforcement officers who use deadly force.
The shooting of Mendez-Perez unfolded just after 1 a.m. on April 23, when he and four other high school friends were suspected of breaking into a vacant rental home in northeast Denver, according to court documents. The family said in their lawsuit that the friends knew no one was living there and were looking to party.
Manning and his family lived directly behind the home. Police records say his wife had said goodnight to their son and was about to go to bed when she saw about five males attempt to break in and called 911.
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She woke up Manning, who told investigators that he then grabbed a handgun from a lock box, made sure the house was secured and waited for police to arrive.
Manning’s wife then called 911 a second time after seeing the group inside the neighboring home.
After Denver police arrived at the scene, according to police records, the group inside the vacant home scattered, with Mendez-Perez and a friend, Andy Munoz, climbing a fence into Manning’s backyard.
Manning, waiting with his pistol, turned on his porch light and fired five times as Mendez-Perez and Munoz ran away, according to the lawsuit.
Mendez-Perez was hit in the back and Munoz, 18, in the back of his left leg, the complaint said, adding that Manning “did not warn anyone or say anything before shooting.”
Manning later told investigators that he had felt threatened and “didn’t want to have these men come into my home,” where his wife and children were inside.
“I was thinking, you know, like fight or flight comes to mind, and like I didn’t want to be attacked,” Manning said, according to police reports.
He told investigators he was unsure if he actually hit anyone. “They all continued to run. Nobody fell. Nobody stumbled. Nobody slowed down. They just continued to come and move,” Manning said.
Police arrested Manning at the scene on suspicion of second-degree murder, but he was later released without having to post bail. Prosecutors later decided no criminal charges were warranted.
Manning could not be reached for comment Thursday and an attorney for him in his criminal case did not immediately respond to a request from NBC News.
Charlie Crichton, an attorney representing Mendez-Perez’s family and Munoz, said the group of friends were not armed and did not intend to harm anyone when they broke into the vacant home.
He said that while they might have been criminally trespassing, their actions didn’t justify being shot at and one of them killed.
“Breaking into a vacant house should not be a death sentence,” Crichton said. “We have the criminal justice system for high school kids who break into a vacant house.”
He added that Manning could have “let police do their jobs” rather than shooting.
The status of the criminal cases against Munoz and the other juvenile suspects involved was not immediately clear.
Mendez-Perez’s name has been invoked during protests against police brutality, and his sister has said she will continue to advocate on his behalf.
“My brother is gone,” Ana Mendez said. “I don’t understand how someone can take a life and then nothing happens.”