WELD COUNTY, Colo. — Days after a jury in Greeley found a Fort Lupton police officer not guilty of manslaughter in an on-duty, fatal shooting of an unarmed man, the prosecutor most responsible for taking the case to trial said he “wasn’t surprised” by the jury’s decision.
On Friday evening, a jury acquitted officer Zachary Helbig in the Jan. 16, 2019 shooting death of Shawn Joseph Billinger, 46.
Helbig was the lone officer charged in any of the 69 officer-involved shootings in Colorado last year. A grand jury issued an indictment in April.
9Wants to Know spoke with District Attorney Michael Rourke as well as Helbig’s attorney Mallory Revel on Wednesday to get their thoughts on the case.
“We knew this was going to be a very difficult trial,” said Rourke. “We knew our community is very law enforcement friendly.”
He said he remains comfortable with the decision even after the verdict. When local law enforcement reviewed Helbig’s body-worn camera footage in the days following the shooting, he said, they all concluded something was wrong.
“To a person, they all looked at me and my assistant DA and said it was a bad shoot,” he said. “There was nothing in [Billinger’s] hands, and it was clear his hands were empty at the time he’s approaching the officer.”
He said Helbig had other options other than to fatally shoot Billinger.
Revel said her case leaned heavily on the minutes leading up the shooting. The body camera shows Helbig speaking to an acquaintance of Billinger outside a Fort Lupton gas station. During their conversation, the woman told Helbig that Billinger used meth, had access to knives and was “on a death mission.”
“A police officer hears someone is on a death mission, and they don’t know if that means suicidal, homicidal. They know that means danger,” said Revel of Foster, Graham, Milstein and Calisher law firm. “We don’t think this was a head-scratcher. This was clearly a justified shooting.”
Rourke said he was “disappointed” with the jury’s decision but added, “I wasn’t surprised. I appreciated [the jury’s] time. They were a very attentive jury.”
He said he remains convinced it was the right decision to prosecute Helbig who could have faced multiple years in prison had he been convicted.
Revel said the jury’s decision should speak for itself. “The law allows police officers to use deadly force in specific situations. This was a perfect example of that.”
She said Helbig, on administrative leave since the indictment, still wants to pursue a job in law enforcement possibly still with the Fort Lupton Police Department.
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