Schurr's attorney argues wild west rules of deadly force should apply to Lyoya killing; judge says no
Matt Borgula came to court with his Jesse James story all ready to go.
Borgula, the attorney who represents former Grand Rapids Police officer Christopher Schurr, has been trying to argue that the law was on his client’s side when Schurr shot and killed Patrick Lyoya, a Black Congolese refugee, in the back of the head following a traffic stop in April of 2022.
Schurr faces charges of second-degree murder for the killing. On Friday, Borgula appeared in Kent County’s 17th Circuit Court to try to have the charges thrown out.
His argument: The killing was legal because when it comes to the use of deadly force by police officers, Michigan law is stuck in the days of the wild west.
“There used to be ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ posters in this country,” Borgula said to Circuit Court Judge Christina Elmore. “And I’m only talking about this because that’s the law we’re looking at.”
“I don’t need to hear about Jesse James”
Lyoya’s killing shocked community members who had been arguing for years that GRPD officers routinely used force against minority suspects when it wasn’t necessary. A city-commissioned study in 2017 found evidence that GRPD officers disproportionately pulled over Black drivers in traffic stops. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights has 21 open investigations against the police department over allegations of racial bias, and has already filed formal charges in three cases.
Video of Lyoya’s killing was so graphic and disturbing, city leaders barricaded the police department headquarters last spring before releasing it to the public, fearful that the footage could lead to unrest.
That video is now one of the central pieces of evidence used to charge Schurr with second-degree murder. It shows Lyoya fleeing Schurr following the traffic stop, a brief struggle over a taser then, with Schurr on top of Lyoya, he fires a single shot directly into the back of Lyoya’s head, killing him instantly.
“If they’re fleeing and they’re a felon, you can use deadly force. The classic example is Jesse James, notorious bank robber.”Matt Borgula, attorney for former GRPD officer Christopher Schurr
In court on Friday, Borgula claimed it doesn't matter who was on top during the struggle, or whether Lyoya was shot in the back of the head.
All that matters, legally, is that Lyoya tried to flee, and he had already resisted arrest. In the old days, as in today, Borgula argued, that meant Schurr could shoot him dead.
“If they’re fleeing and they’re a felon, you can use deadly force,” Borgula said. “The classic example is Jesse James, notorious bank robber.”
“And I’m going to stop you,” interjected judge Christina Elmore. “... I don’t need to hear about Jesse James.”
What the case law says
The legal theory that Michigan law is stuck in the days of the wild west just isn’t true, she ultimately decided, rejecting Borgula's motion to have the murder charge thrown out.
There are decades of Michigan cases that speak to what legal standard should apply to Schurr. There’s the 1930 Michigan Supreme Court case in which a moonshiner in Flint shot a man he thought was trying to steal his whiskey. There’s the 1986 case in which the manager of a party store in Highland Park tracked down a man who’d robbed the store, and shot him. And finally, there’s the 1990 casein which a Detroit man shot and killed someone who was fleeing after breaking into his car. Each of these cases involved citizens shooting people who had committed a felony, but each applied to Schurr’s case, Elmore said.
Because it’s not the wild west anymore. Michigan law has evolved to set new standards for when citizens can use deadly force, and police, Elmore said, cannot be held to a different standard.
“That would require in effect two different definitions of murder … one for police officers and one for the rest of us,” Elmore said, reading from a footnote of the Michigan Supreme Court opinion in the 1990 case, People v. Couch.
“This is precisely what the defense is suggesting that the court and the legislature do,” Elmore continued in her own words, “which is to create a separate definition of murder for police officers and for the rest of us, which would in fact be, potentially unconstitutional.”
Trial scheduled for next month
Elmore rejected Borgula’s motion to have the murder charges thrown out, which puts the case on track for a trial in March. Then, Elmore said it will be up to a jury to decide whether Schurr’s actions were reasonable and necessary, or whether they amounted to murder. That trial could be delayed because Borgula said he still plans to appeal today’s ruling to the Michigan Court of Appeals to potentially breathe life back into his wild west theory of Michigan law.
Borgula told reporters after Friday’s hearing he’s not persuaded that any of the cases cited by Elmore should apply to his client.
“All of those cases relate to vigilante justice,” Borgula said. “And if we’re going to start treating the police officers as vigilantes, why would anyone want to be a police officer?”
But Kent County prosecutor Chris Becker told reporters he’s still confident Schurr will ultimately face a jury.
“It’s not like we’re stuck in 1846,” Becker said. “There’s been case law, and Supreme Court cases that the judge cited and that we cited, that have developed that law over time.” Becker, who frequently has to work with Grand Rapids Police officers while prosecuting other crimes, said no police officer should be able to dodge murder charges just because they have a badge.
“A police officer says ‘Hey come with me’ and you pull away, all of a sudden the police officer can kill you?” he asked. “That’s stunning in its application.”
Schurr’s trial on second-degree murder charges is currently scheduled to begin on March 13.