ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The state inquiry into a police shooting that left a Chugiak man dead in a Safeway parking lot is likely months from completion, and on Thursday, the sister of Micah McComas, Krista Smith, listed some of the family's unanswered questions to a group of reporters gathered in an Anchorage hotel conference room.
At the core, the goal of the independent investigation is to determine whether or not Seward Police Department Officer Matthew "Eddie" Armstrong was justified when he pulled the trigger multiple times, killing McComas in a routine traffic stop gone wrong.
Armstrong, a 13-year SPD veteran, stopped an allegedly speeding car driven by McComas two Sundays ago shortly after 1 a.m.
"The traffic stop turned into a drug investigation," Alaska State Troopers said of the ordeal in a dispatch. The deceased had an array of convictions for drug-related offenses in his 41 years. "McComas was handcuffed and placed in the back of Officer Armstrong’s vehicle."
When the officer stepped away from his patrol car to speak with another suspect, as troopers tell it, the suspect somehow made his way into the front seat and tried to drive away. For reasons presently unknown to the public, moments later, the officer opened fire.
Armstrong may have had no choice: maybe his life or someone else's life was at risk. Or perhaps, despite the badge and uniform, the killing was illegal. Investigators, prosecutors, or even a judge and jury will eventually have the final say. The process can take months or years to play out.
Reading from a statement, Smith told reporters that the family examined the body and counted seven bullet wounds: two fingers were shot off, there was one shot under his arm that was apparently fired directly against his skin, and his arm, torso, and both legs also were shot, she said.
One fact that may prove key for troopers and Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals ("OSPA") attorneys trying to decide if Armstrong should face criminal charges is if McComas remained handcuffed at the time he was shot. Smith said that Andrew Peterson, an assistant attorney general involved with the investigation, told the family that there is video of McComas wearing handcuffs in the front seat of the police cruiser. Footage from body cameras and patrol car cameras may also hold important clues.
"If the officer had handcuffed and then properly secured Micah in the backseat of a police car, how is it possible that Micah could have accessed the front seat?" Smith wondered.
Reached by phone, Peterson confirmed that he spoke with the family, but the attorney declined to confirm or deny any details of their conversation.
Scott Smith, McComas' brother-in-law, stood along his wife at the news conference said that the whole point of organizing such an event while visiting from their home in South Carolina was to draw attention to the case and to signal to the attorney general and others that the family is committed to achieving justice if the officer's action was not justified.
He acknowledged the possibility of a civil lawsuit against the City of Seward or advocacy by the family for policy or law changes to help avoid similar incidents in the future.
"We're going to take this all the way," he said. "We're going to understand what happened, and we're going to accept whatever happened."
The sister said she hopes people remember that, in the end, her brother's past convictions for drug offenses has no bearing on whether or not the officer's life was threatened, that the only thing that matters is if Armstrong was defending himself.
"Yes, my brother may have had drugs in his wallet, but that's not a reason to be killed," Krista Smith said, adding that, despite struggling with substance abuse issues, that her brother was compassionate and loved his family. One recent example is that he recently gave his mother 63 roses, one for each year, on her birthday. Both of McComas' parents live in Chugiak.
Peterson, the attorney from OSPA, said he expects troopers to take about six weeks to complete their investigation, though "it's not a hard and fast date," he said. The actual timeline will be determined by how long it takes to process evidence and to get testing results.
Then comes the opinion on whether or not the shooting was justified or an incident that qualifies as criminal homicide, and after that, prosecutors may decide whether or not to file charges.
Regardless of what the investigation reveals, Smith said that SPD needs to make sure one thing never happens again: when the department informed the family that her brother had been killed, they never mentioned that he was killed by an officer.
"That's suspicious," Smith said in an interview. "We were never officially informed that it was an officer-involved shooting. We actually started our own research online and saw a lot of media attention toward a shooting that happened at the same time.
"I can't see how that would compromise an investigation. Why wouldn't they just tell us?"