A Missouri police detective was found guilty on Friday in the death of a Black man who was fatally shot in 2019 as he sat in a pickup truck outside his home, a remarkable decision given the rarity of convictions in on-duty killings by police officers.
Judge J. Dale Youngs ruled that the detective, Eric J. DeValkenaere of the Kansas City Police Department, had no reason to go on the property of Cameron Lamb, 26, who was shot twice as he was backing into his garage on Dec. 3, 2019. Detective DeValkenaere, 43, and another detective had driven to Mr. Lamb’s house after receiving a report about a traffic incident involving the truck that Mr. Lamb was driving.
But they had no warrant and did not have reason to believe a crime had been committed when they rushed into Mr. Lamb’s backyard and confronted him, argued Jackson County prosecutors, who also suggested during the trial that the police had planted evidence at the scene to make it look as if Mr. Lamb had a gun.
Judge Youngs rejected Detective DeValkenaere’s claim that he believed Mr. Lamb was going to shoot his partner and convicted the officer of second-degree involuntary manslaughter and armed criminal action, a charge that carries a minimum sentence of three years in prison. As he ruled, Judge Youngs said that Detective DeValkenaere had put himself in a position in which he could harm someone.
Detective DeValkenaere, who is white, and his partner were the “initial aggressors in the encounter with Cameron Lamb on Dec. 3, 2019, and had a duty to retreat from the encounter under the circumstances,” Judge Youngs said.
After the decision, Detective DeValkenaere, who has worked for the Kansas City Police Department for about 20 years, was “suspended without pay pending termination,” said Officer Donna Drake, a department spokeswoman.
Molly Hastings, a lawyer for the detective, said they “absolutely plan to appeal” Judge Youngs’s decision.
Laurie Bey, Mr. Lamb’s mother, wept after the verdict and said she was happy and overwhelmed by the judge’s decision.
“But I miss my baby, and this just did not have to be,” Ms. Bey told reporters. “My son was at his home and he was minding his own business when they took it upon themselves to go into the backyard.”
The conviction came on the same day that Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of homicide and other charges by a jury in Kenosha, Wis.
Mr. Rittenhouse, 18, who fatally shot two men and wounded another last year amid protests and rioting over police conduct, had argued that he acted in self-defense. Legal analysts said that by charging Mr. Rittenhouse with homicide, prosecutors created an uphill battle to prove to the jury that Mr. Rittenhouse did not act out of a reasonable fear that his life was in danger.
In Missouri, the prosecutors focused on the decision by the detectives to enter private property even though there was no evidence of a crime and they did not have a search warrant.
Mr. Lamb, a father of three young children who ran a car repair business at his home, was driving a red pickup truck. He and his girlfriend had been involved in a dispute, and a police helicopter saw the truck following her car at high speeds.
Detective DeValkenaere and his partner, Troy Schwalm, drove to Mr. Lamb’s address. By then, prosecutors said, the situation had de-escalated. Mr. Lamb had stopped speeding and he was heading home, said Michael Mansur, a spokesman for the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office.
Detective DeValkenaere and Detective Schwalm arrived in separate vehicles and approached the house.
As Mr. Lamb backed into the garage, Detective DeValkenaere, who testified in his own defense, said he stood on one side of the truck and saw Mr. Lamb slide his left hand down his body, reach into a waistband and pull out a gun that he pointed at Detective Schwalm. Detective DeValkenaere fired his weapon four times, hitting Mr. Lamb twice.
During the trial, prosecutors suggested that evidence was planted to make it seem as if Mr. Lamb had a gun. Two bullets were found in Mr. Lamb’s pockets at the morgue even though that evidence was not logged at the crime scene, prosecutors said.
In his ruling, Judge Youngs did not allude to the theory that evidence was planted. Instead, he examined the decision by the officers to confront Mr. Lamb at his home, when they had no probable cause to approach him or step on his property.
“The court concludes that this conduct was a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise in this situation and constituted criminal negligence,” the judge said.
Mr. Mansur, the spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, said that by charging the detective with manslaughter instead of murder, prosecutors took the focus away from the “split-second decision” that officers often say they have to make when confronting a life-or-death situation.
The prosecution’s argument became a more straightforward one about whether the officers had violated Mr. Lamb’s Fourth Amendment right to be safe on his own property and created a situation in which someone could be harmed as a result of those actions.
Jean Peters Baker, the Jackson County prosecutor, said the case had involved “a lot of sleepless nights.”
“There is a somberness that comes with all verdicts,” Ms. Baker told reporters after the verdict. “Someone misses someone around their dining room table and then there’s another individual that faces punishment for the harm that’s been done.”
She said that prosecutors had sought a “just outcome.”
“I believe that’s where we stand today,” Ms. Baker said. The family of Mr. Lamb has called on the Justice Department to investigate the Kansas City Police Department, and it is suing the agency in federal court.
Officer Drake, the Kansas City police spokeswoman, said in a statement that “every detective-involved shooting is difficult not only for the members in the community, but also the members of the Police Department.”
“We acknowledge the court’s decision,” she said.