(This March 3 story has been refiled to correct typographical error in headline)
By Gina Cherelus and Dan Whitcomb
(Reuters) - Two Sacramento policemen who shot and killed an unarmed black man in a dark backyard last year will not be charged criminally in the case, the county prosecutor said on Saturday, citing what she said was their legitimate fear that the suspect was shooting at them.
The decision not to charge the two officers in the death of Stephon Clark, 22, angered community activists and quickly touched off protests outside police headquarters in Sacramento, the California state capital.
Clark was shot dead on March 18, 2018, in the backyard of his grandmother’s home by police responding to reports that someone was breaking car windows on the street.
The incident, like other fatal police shootings of young black men in recent years, sparked two weeks of demonstrations in the streets of Sacramento at the time and added fuel to a national debate on police use of deadly force.
During a 90-minute news conference to announce her decision, Sacramento County District Attorney Marie Schubert told reporters that officers Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet opened fire after Clark faced them in a shooting stance and they saw a flash of light.
Schubert played body-camera footage of the confrontation which appeared to show the flash, which she said the officers took for a gunshot. She said it was still not clear what caused the flash. Clark was holding a cell phone at the time of his death.
Schubert said investigators had also determined that it was Clark who had been smashing car windows while under the influence of Xanax, alcohol and marijuana. Text messages showed he was possibly suicidal that night following a domestic violence incident involving the mother of one of his children.
“As a result, we will not charge these officers with any criminal activity,” Schubert said. “There is no question that the death of Stephon Clark is a tragedy not just for this family but for this community.”
The decision drew swift criticism from members of Clark’s family and community activists.
“I feel like, shame on the DA, shame on her. I know she will not sleep well at night - she can’t,” Clark’s mother, Sequette, told reporters outside her home, according to the Sacramento Bee newspaper.
Several dozen demonstrators gathered outside police headquarters in protest.
The Sacramento Police department said in a written statement that its leaders recognize the “significant impact” of Clark’s death on the community and understand the challenges they face as they work to heal and build trust.
“We are committed to building healthy neighborhoods in our city, where every person has an opportunity to thrive. We will continue to work together with our community to ensure our city is policed safely and effectively,” the police department said.
The department said it had made policy changes to the way it handles such incidents in the future.
Clark’s family sued the officers and the city for wrongful death in January.
Reporting by Gina Cherelus and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Leslie Adler