Portsmouth, VA – A Portsmouth police officer charged for shooting an armed burglary suspect during a foot pursuit in 2017 will have his fate decided by a jury, even though he opted to have a judge decide the outcome of the case.
Nicole Belote, the attorney representing 32-year-old Portsmouth Police Department Officer Jeremy Durocher, said she and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney George Bruch had already established an agreed-upon plan to waive the jury trial during a brief text message exchange on Dec. 6, The Virginian-Pilot reported.
“If we waive jury, do you intend to concur?” Belote asked him in the text.
“Yes,” Bruch responded.
But on Wednesday, Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales overrode Bruch’s agreement with Belote, and announced that her office would ask the court for a jury trial.
Law enforcement officers who are charged with criminal offenses often opt for bench trials on the belief the judges are more impartial and juries may consider emotions over facts.
But Virginia law allows prosecutors to request a jury trial, even if the defendant has waived that right.
“It’s unfortunate that we are going this route,” Belote said of Morales’ announcement.
Officer Durocher’s trial was scheduled to begin on June 13, 2019, but will likely need to be reset to accommodate for jury selection, The Virginian-Pilot reported.
He has been charged with illegal use of a firearm and aggravated malicious wounding, and faces a maximum of life in prison if he is convicted.
The charges came in November, just months after he was awarded the department’s Medal of Valor and named Officer of the Month for his actions during the incident, The Virginian-Pilot reported.
“The ones that know what is happening on the front lines recognized him for valor,” Officer Durocher’s attorney at the time, Nicholas Renninger, told the paper.
"He's just as confident today as he was a year ago that he made the right call," Renninger added, according to WAVY.
“He absolutely deserved that award,” Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) spokesperson Sergeant Matt Crutcher agreed. “He did exactly what we trained him to do.”
“We stand committed, as we are sworn to do, to protect the citizens of Portsmouth, but we need to acknowledge that our lives matter just as much as everyone else’s,” the FOP said in a statement, according to WTKR.
The incident occurred on Oct. 29, 2017, after Portsmouth police responded to a residential burglary on Tatem Avenue, WAVY reported.
Bodycam footage showed the officers as they stood outside a home with their weapons drawn, just a moment before a woman yelled out.
Officer Durocher immediately began running towards the woman’s voice, and spotted 18-year-old Deontrace Ward sprinting away from the house.
“Hey! Get on the ground!” the officer ordered, as Ward fled through the yard and behind a fence.
“He has a gun! He has a gun!” Officer Durocher yelled, firing multiple rounds.
Ward fell to the ground outside another home, and Officer Durocher scaled a fence while ordering the armed suspect to remain on the ground.
Additional officers arrived at the scene from the direction in which Ward had been running.
“He’s got a gun!” Officer Durocher repeatedly warned them. “He’s got a gun in his waistband.”
“He had it flying like…towards me,” the winded officer explained in the video. “He didn’t shoot, but he had it at me as he came out the window.”
Police located the loaded weapon inside Ward’s pants near his knee, as well as stolen jewelry, WAVY reported.
Another gun was recovered inside the burgled home, according to WAVY.
Two entryways were damaged at the residence, and investigators ultimately recovered approximately $1,500 worth of stolen items.
Ward, who still has a bullet lodged in his abdomen, told CBS News that he never threatened Officer Durocher with his gun.
"I was just pretty much trying to get away. Showing no aggression," Ward told the news outlet. "I feel he shot for no reason."
“If I’m just running away, I shouldn’t get shot,” he told The Virginian-Pilot.
On June 12, Ward pleaded guilty to grand larceny, burglary, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, conspiracy to commit larceny, and conspiracy to commit armed burglary, according to WAVY.
Additional charges of destruction of property, brandishing a firearm, and assault of a law enforcement officer were dismissed as part of his plea agreement.
He was sentenced to 31 years in prison, but 25 years of the sentence were suspended by the judge.
Ward will serve six years before he is released onto 10 years of probation.
If convicted of the charges leveled against him, Officer Durocher faces a possible life sentence.
“We, the fraternal organizations of this police department, want to acknowledge our full support of Officer Durocher and his actions in the unfortunate situation that he was forced into by the accused, Mr. Ward,” the FOP said in a statement, according to WTKR. “We want it fully known that it was the actions of one person, Mr. Ward…that brought us here today.”
The FOP noted that Morales had recused herself from Ward’s case several months earlier, “so that she could focus on the investigation of the officer.”
Morales also told the Portsmouth Police Department to “step out” of the investigation in order to “alleviate any fears of bias,” the FOP said.
The FOP argued that Morales and her office should not be involved in either case.
“She should have stepped out of both cases, to totally alleviate these types of fears,” the FOP said.
Although the officer-involved shooting was investigated by the Virginia State Police, Morales never met with the agency as a part of her review of the case, according to the FOP.
State police handed her their investigative findings nearly one year ago.
“It also appears to us that all incidents involving use of force by police officers are going to the Grand Jury,” the FOP’s statement read. “We only feel that it is right that this process be fair, consistent and timely. It is neither.”
“It is out of the ordinary for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s investigator to present any case. Almost every single case presented to the Grand Jury is presented by a Portsmouth Police officer or detective,” the FOP continued. “By presenting this directly from her office, it automatically shows a bias by her office and demonstrates it indirectly to the Grand Jury.”
Officer Ward, a Navy veteran, joined the department approximately six months prior to the incident, according to The Virginian-Pilot.
Renninger said that the only person to blame for the shooting is Ward himself.
"The suspect was armed, had burglarized a home and was clearly a danger and a threat in that regard," Renninger told The Virginian-Pilot. "I have no qualms whatsoever in saying that my client’s actions in protecting himself and those around him were justified."
"No police officer can go to work now without looking over their shoulder worried they will be charged simply for doing their job," Renninger told The Virginian-Pilot.