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Grand jury charges Nebraska bar owner in protester's death

Posted September 16, 2020 9:15 a.m. EDT

Scurlock family attorney Justin Wayne and members of the Scurlock family, including James Scurlock II, right, talk about special prosecutor Fred Franklin announcing charges in the shooting death of James Scurlock on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Omaha, Neb. (Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald via AP)

— A white business owner who fatally shot a Black man during civil unrest in downtown Omaha this spring has been charged with manslaughter and other charges.

A grand jury announced its decision Tuesday in the May 30 shooting of 22-year-old James Scurlock on Tuesday.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine initially declined to file charges against Jake Gardner in the shooting, saying he had reviewed witness statements and video and believed the bar owner acted in self-defense. But Kleine was criticized for his decision and asked the grand jury to review the case.

Special Prosecutor Frederick Franklin said Tuesday that the grand jury reviewed additional evidence that Kleine didn't have, including texts from Gardner’s phone, messages on his Facebook profile and his interactions with bystanders before coming into contact with Spurlock. He declined to provide specifics of what the new evidence shows except to say it undermines the self-defense theory.

“There was significant evidence that was consistent with there being an intentional killing by Jake Gardner, and that evidence comes primarily from him,” Franklin said.

Gardner was also charged with attempted assault, making terroristic threats and using a gun to commit a felony.

Gardner and his attorney didn't respond to efforts by the Omaha World-Herald to seek comment late Tuesday.

Attorney Justin Wayne, who represents Scurlock's family, said the family continues to mourn the loss of their loved one and that the months of waiting for the grand jury's decision have been difficult.

“While this family is thankful,” Wayne said, “this family is also frustrated that it took this process to occur.”

Scurlock’s shooting happened as protests and civil unrest unfolded in Omaha and around the world following the May 25 death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police. Floyd, who was Black and handcuffed, died after a white police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck, even as Floyd pleaded for air.

Authorities have said Gardner shot Scurlock outside his bar in downtown Omaha as he sought to ward off any theft or property damage.

Kleine later showed reporters some surveillance video that seemed to show Gardner, his father and protesters exchanging words before Gardner, flashing a gun, backed away. Gardner was shoved to the ground by two people before he fired two shots, sending people scrambling. Scurlock then jumped on Gardner’s back and Gardner shot him. While there was no audio with the video, Kleine said Gardner warned Scurlock to get off of him several times before he fired the fatal shot.

Critics of the initial investigation said Scurlock was trying to stop Gardner from hurting anyone.

Franklin said he hopes the charges won't ignite new protests in Omaha.

“This is not a time for celebration or exurberance. These are simply charges," Franklin said. "Jake Gardner is a man presumed innocent as I stand here before you right now.”

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