Cops, Courts & Prisons

THE UNTIMELY DEATH OF MARCUS-DAVID PETERS

Originally published in the Summer 2018 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 57, printed June 24. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To see the full PDF, see our Full Issues page.

By Phil Wilayto

When Marcus-David Peters was gunned down May 14 by a Richmond police officer, his death quickly became national news. It wasn’t only the fact that another unarmed Black man had died at the hands of law enforcement – it was also the circumstances of his death.

Marcus-David Peters. Image courtesy of the Peters family.

By all accounts, Peters was the kind of son every parent wishes they had. The 24-year-old had graduated with honors from Virginia Commonwealth University. He became a high school biology teacher in Essex County, about an hour northeast of Richmond.

He also worked part-time at Richmond’s 5-star Jefferson Hotel. He was a role model to his students and was planning to start an organization to mentor at-risk youth. He had never been arrested. A clean record. And no history of any kind of mental illness.

But something happened on May 14. After teaching class as usual, Peters stopped by his Henrico County apartment and then drove into Richmond to the Jefferson, parked his car and walked into the hotel.

That’s when the strange behavior first showed itself. As recorded by the hotel’s security cameras, Peters removed his shirt, had a brief conversation with another employee and then shortly after was recorded leaving the hotel, naked, getting back into his car and driving away.

Mistake No. 1

Despite this bizarre behavior by one of their employees, no one at the hotel contacted the family until after Peters had died. That was the first mistake made on that fateful day.

Mistake No. 2

Heading north, Peters sideswiped three cars before driving into a grove of trees at the Chamberlayne Avenue entrance to Interstates 64 and 95. By this time he was being followed by Richmond Officer Michael Nyantakyi, who had observed Peters’ erratic driving, which was partially recorded by surveillance cameras. The officer, also African-American and a 10-year veteran of the city’s police force, was wearing a body camera, which recorded what happened next.

Officer Nyantakyi gets out of his vehicle and walks a short distance towards Peters’ car while training his handgun in Peters’ direction, shouting, “Stay in the car!” Then, speaking into his mic, the officer says, “427 – Male seems to be mentally unstable as we speak.”

Peters is then seen climbing feet first out of the driver’s window of his vehicle and hopping and skipping across the entrance ramp onto I-95, where he is sideswiped by a slow-moving car.

At this point Nyantakyi is heard to say, “Can I get [unintelligible] ASAP?”

Is Nyantakyi calling for backup? It appears so. But instead of waiting for help, he moves closer to Peters. He walks across the entrance ramp up to the highway guardrail, then moves even to the right of the guardrail as Peters is rolling on the ground in the breakdown lane, kicking his feet in the air and finally making “snow angel” motions while lying on his back. All this time, Peters seems to be in his own world, not even noticing the cars going by, the RV stopped in the right-hand lane just feet away from him, and not the officer, whom he ran past to get to the highway.

It is only when Peters looks up and sees Officer Nyantakyi pointing a bright yellow Taser at him that he becomes hostile, gets up, threatens the officer and moves aggressively toward him.

Nyantakyi is heard to order “Back up!” several times before firing the Taser. One of the two Taser darts fails to connect with Peters, so there is no charge. Peters keeps coming. The officer fires his gun twice, hitting Peters in the abdomen. Peters dies a short time later from the fatal wounds.

Officer Nyantakyi realized that Peters was “mentally unstable.” If he had not approached Peters alone, if he had waited for backup – which arrived seconds after he fired the fatal shots – Marcus-David Peters might be alive today.

This was mistake number 2.

Mistake No. 3

Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham almost immediately took the position that even a naked man can be dangerous. To prove his point, he reached back to a 16-year old case from Seattle, Wash., in which a naked man was able to wrest a gun from an officer. To his credit, Durham made the decision to show the hotel, City and body-cam video to Peters’ family, and also to release it to the public. But he did so with his own commentary.

Durham presented the video May 25 at police headquarters on West Grace Street to a room packed with reporters. The chief told the reporters to pay particular attention to the 18 seconds between the time Peters sat up and yelled at Officer Nyantakyi and when the officer shot him.

“It was all said and done in 18 seconds,” Police Chief Alfred Durham told the reporters. “That’s fast. That’s important.”

The next day, the city’s daily newspaper dutifully opened its story on the shooting this way: “Eighteen seconds before he was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer on May 14, Marcus-David Peters, naked and unarmed, sat straight up after rolling around the northbound lanes of Interstate 95/64 and looked directly at the officer, as if noticing him for the first time.”

No, the critical part of the story was when Officer Nyantakyi approached the emotionally distraught but non-hostile, non-aggressive Peters and pointed a Taser at him.

When this reporter asked Chief Durham if it were standard practice for a lone police officer to approach someone in obvious mental distress, Durham insisted that Officer Nyantakyi did not approach Peters. That statement is contradicted by the police body-cam video. Using Peters’ car as a reference point, it is clear that Officer Nyantakyi moved from his position by his own vehicle toward Peters, who only became hostile when he looked up and saw the uniformed officer pointing the Taser at him.

At the same time, Durham seemed to admit that his officers were not receiving sufficient training in how to handle situations like this one. “We give 40 hours [of training],” he said, “and people expect us to get it right.”

Durham’s statements concerning the shooting were mistake number 3.

The community responds

As soon as the fatal shooting of Marcus-David Peters was first reported, the Defenders contacted his sister Princess Blanding, who was acting as the family spokesperson. When we asked what we could do to help, Blanding answered, “We want a protest.”

Peters family spokesperson Princess Blanding responds to the police department’s release of video showing her brother’s death. To her left is Marcus’s uncle Jeffrey Peters. Photo by Kwame Binta.

Just a few days before, at the Richmond Speak-Out for Prison Justice, the Rev. James Henry Harris, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Richmond’s Randolph neighborhood, had announced he would hold a community meeting to discuss Peters’ shooting. So the Defenders put Blanding and Rev. Harris in touch with each other. We also suggested other organizations that might be interested in supporting the family: Community Unity in Action and Leaders of the New South, as well as the nonprofit organizations Southerners on New Ground and New Virginia Majority, which along with the Legal Aid Justice Center had been working on a police transparency and accountability project.

The result was an ad hoc coalition that, under the leadership of the Peters family, has been organizing to demand “Justice & Reformation” in the fatal shooting of Marcus-David Peters.

On May 25, the Peters family held a press conference at Second Baptist to respond to the police department’s release of video showing Marcus’ final minutes.

On May 26, more than 500 people attended a Community Speak-Out and Rally for Peters, also held at Second Baptist. On June 2, more than 500 people marched from the VCU Siegel Center, where Marcus graduated, to Richmond police headquarters on West Grace Street.

Despite a torrential downpour, everyone stayed as Blanding read the family’s demands in front of the police station.

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