'Backed into a corner': AZ father seeks police accountability after son's friends blamed for his murder
Roland Harris is still seeking justice after his son, Jacob Harris' friends were charged with his 2019 murder despite the fact police killed him, The Appeal reports.
Meg O'Connor, an investigative reporter with The Appeal, has followed the case since the incident occurred, and is now highlighting Roland Harris' fight to hold the officers who played a part in killing his son accountable.
According to Phoenix New Times, on the night of January 11, 2029, Phoenix police tracked and followed 19-year-old Jacob Harris, along with three of his friends, as they rode around in a 2001 red Honda Passport, and were "believed to be connected to a string of robberies targeting places like Whataburger and Circle K."
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A little over 5 months after Harris' murder, Phoenix New Times reported:
Phoenix Officer Charles Holton threw a flash grenade. One officer mistook it for gunfire. On the dimly lit roadside, Jacob Harris opened the Passport's rear passenger door and sprinted away from the officers. He took seven steps before two Phoenix police officers gunned him down. It was 12:22 a.m. Three seconds after exiting the vehicle, Harris was shot in his liver, lung, and heart. Within an hour, he was dead.
“It all happened so quick,” Sariah Busani, who was in the car with Harris, said. "Honestly it could have been any of us that night. I thank God every day because anything bad could have happened. We could have crashed, we could have all died."
Law enforcement officials in Phoenix—including Kristopher Bertz, the officer who killed Jacob Harris—have justified the shooting by saying they feared Harris intended to shoot them. But records obtained by The Appeal show that multiple officials have made inconsistent or false statements about the circumstances surrounding the shooting. Even Bertz's own accounts of that night have differed slightly. Aerial surveillance footage of the incident shows Harris running away. And a judge in the criminal case against Harris's friends has stated unequivocally that Harris did not turn toward Bertz.
Theresa Greene, who is a neighbor to one of the victim's grandmother, told The Appeal, "There were plenty of other opportunities to make an arrest. I don't know what was going through their heads, but now it's cost a person their life."
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Instead, prosecutors decided to hold Harris's three friends responsible for his death. Arizona's 'felony murder' law allows people to be charged with murder if someone dies during the commission of a felony, even if they did not cause the death. Jeremiah Triplett, Sariah Busani, and Johnny Reed—ages 20, 19, and 14 at the time—were in the car with Harris on the night of his death. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office charged them with first-degree murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, and burglary.
"You guys are taking my 14-year-old baby and signing his whole life off," Shawanna Chambers, Reed's aunt said during an interview with The Appeal.
"He's a young Black boy. And we're in poverty," she continued. "They were never going to hold the police accountable for Jacob's murder. It was going to be us."
The Appeal reports:
Busani and Triplett were held in jail on a $1 million bond for three years before finally being sentenced in the first few months of 2022. Busani was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Triplett was sentenced to 30 years. Reed was held on a $500,000 bond and was ultimately sentenced to 15 years in prison—more years than he had even been alive at the time of his arrest.
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As Roland Harris continues to seek justice for his son and his friends, The Appeal reports his "search for answers has come at a significant cost."
Bertz "has demanded [Harris] pay the officer's $40,000 attorney fees after a federal court dismissed Harris's wrongful death suit," and he and his wife have even "split, in part, he says, because he became so deeply consumed by getting justice for his son."
Although footage of the incident was released, according to The Appeal, the "Phoenix Police Department is also fighting tooth and nail to keep additional footage of the incident out of the public eye."
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The Appeal's full report is available at this link. Phoenix New Times' report is here.
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