A coroner's jury excused the actions of a Las Vegas SWAT officer Friday after evidence showed that he accidentally killed the brother of his intended target while shooting at an armed suspect.
Officer Patrick Ledbetter, a 12-year veteran of the Metropolitan Police Department, testified that he would do nothing differently if faced with the same set of circumstances again.
"I had about half a second to react to the gun being pointed at me," Ledbetter said during a daylong coroner's inquest.
Ledbetter, 39, was the first member of the SWAT team to enter unit 153 at the Joshua Villas apartment complex on July 2. The team had been sent to the apartment at 3985 E. Cheyenne Ave. to serve a search warrant after a confidential informant reported seeing drugs and guns there.
Witnesses said SWAT officers rammed a front window of the apartment with a diversionary device, creating a loud bang and bright flash of light, before breaking through the front door. Ledbetter was followed closely by his partner, Robert Lewis, as he entered the residence and saw someone dive into the kitchen area.
Ledbetter, a member of the SWAT team for nearly five years, testified that he moved quickly toward the kitchen and saw a person crouched next to the sink, about 3 or 4 feet away. "I see a muzzle of a gun coming up and pointed right at my face," he told the jury.
He recalled thinking, "Oh, God, this is gonna suck" before firing four rounds from his .22-caliber rifle.
"I don't even remember pulling the trigger," he said. "It just happened that quickly."
As Ledbetter continued into the kitchen, he saw his target fall to one side. Then he saw a second person fall to the other side.
The officer said he would not be able to identify the individual who pointed a gun at him. "I was looking down the barrel of a gun, and that was my main focus," he testified.
Sgt. Russell Shoemaker of the department's homicide section said 16-year-old Rayvon Wilkerson was struck by at least three bullets but survived. Wilkerson, now 17, had wounds to his right forearm, right hand, right hip and the left side of his chest.
Shoemaker said evidence suggested that one bullet passed through the teen's hand before entering his hip. The witness said a bullet also passed through the kitchen sink.
Kyone Johnson, 18, died at the scene from a single gunshot wound to the chest. Evidence indicated that the fatal bullet traveled through an "intermediary target" before striking Johnson.
Shoemaker said a loaded 9 mm handgun was found on the kitchen floor. It had not been fired. DNA from skin cells on the gun matched Wilkerson's, indicating that he had handled the gun at some point.
Lewis recalled seeing the "leading end of a barrel" pointed in Ledbetter's direction as the pair neared the kitchen.
"I would have fired at it myself," Lewis testified. "I was just trying to acquire a target."
In the apartment, police found 88 plastic bags of various sizes that contained marijuana. They also found eight bags of rock cocaine and about $1,800 in cash.
Evidence showed that Johnson had marijuana metabolites in his blood at the time of his death. Wilkerson is in custody on drug charges and did not testify at the inquest on the advice of his attorney, Robert Langford, who listened to portions of Friday's hearing.
The attorney described Johnson and Wilkerson as "two more casualties in a lost war on drugs."
Langford counts himself among those who oppose the inquest process, which has drawn controversy for years. During a break in Friday's proceedings, the attorney argued that inquests are not designed to find the truth.
"Let's not lose sight of the fact that this is an incredibly orchestrated and choreographed show intended to make the general public feel better whenever an officer kills a citizen," he said.
Prosecutors from the Clark County district attorney's office present witnesses at inquests. The witnesses do not face cross-examination, but jurors may ask them questions. Members of the public also may submit written questions to a hearing master for consideration.
Las Vegas resident Ericka Wheaton, the mother of both Wilkerson and Johnson, attended Friday's inquest and frequently wrote out questions for witnesses. She declined to be interviewed after the jury announced its decision.
The panel's six men and one woman deliberated about 15 minutes before declaring Johnson's death excusable.
Evidence at the inquest was inconsistent on the question of whether officers identified themselves as police when they entered the apartment. Officers said they announced their presence loudly and wore gear that clearly identified them as police.
Police shot a third suspect, 24-year-old Eric Williams, with a rubber bullet during the raid. Williams, who was arrested on drug charges, also suffered injuries when he broke a window to escape the apartment during the raid.
Like Wilkerson, Williams followed the advice of his attorney and did not testify at the inquest. Williams was interviewed by a homicide detective after the shooting, and a transcript of the interview was read to the jury.
"I didn't even know it was SWAT," Williams told the detective. "I just heard the gun."