NCCU law clinic questions Durham police characterization of officer’s shooting

ablythe@newsobserver.comAugust 2, 2013 

— As the State Bureau of Investigation continues its investigation into a Durham police officer’s fatal shooting of a man on July 27, an N.C. Central University law clinic has done an examination of its own.

Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo, 33, was shot and killed on a Saturday morning two weeks ago by a police officer who responded to an emergency dispatch about a stabbing.

Officers were called at 8:41 a.m. to an East Durham neighborhood and found a man bleeding profusely and cut on his face in the 700 block of Park Avenue, off Holloway Street. Police said they thought a broken bottle had been the weapon.

Durham police chief Jose Lopez told a reporter for The Herald-Sun newspaper this week that the officer who opened fire on Ocampo shot multiple times after the man failed to put his hands up in the air and took a knife out of his pocket.

The officers had approached Ocampo initially, Lopez said, to find out if he had seen the stabbing.

Scott Holmes, a longtime Durham defense lawyer on his second day on the job Friday as director of The Civil Litigation Law Clinic at NCCU, said a private investigator working with the clinic interviewed witnesses who offered a different scenario.

Lopez told The Herald-Sun that when Durham officer R.S. Mbuthia shot Ocampo, the two were several feet apart. Ocampo, according to the Herald report, had pulled a knife from his pocket and approached the officer.

Private investigator Steve Hale, a former head of the Wake County sheriff’s homicide department, talked with three witnesses who said that Ocampo was waiting at the front of his home to “talk with officers about a prior altercation.”

As three officers approached, according to the witness account offered by the NCCU clinic, one of the police noted that Ocampo had a kitchen knife in his back pocket and announced to his two colleagues the presence of a knife.

The witnesses told the private investigator that Ocampo then took the knife out of his pocket, holding the blade end pointed toward his body and offered the handle of the knife to the officer.

The police, according to NCCU, were yelling in English to the Honduran man to drop the knife. But Ocampo, a native Spanish speaker, did not understand English well, according to the three witnesses who were not police officers. One of the witnesses standing nearby yelled at Ocampo in Spanish to put the knife down, but the officer quickly opened fire, according to the NCCU report.

Death certificate

The Herald-Sun reported that Lopez said the officer shot Ocampo multiple times in the chest, but the death certificate obtained by the NCCU clinic shows that Ocampo died from a “gunshot wound to the head,” a significant difference to the police chief’s report.

Kammie Michael, spokeswoman for the Durham police department, said Friday the investigation is continuing and that the department’s policy is not to comment on ongoing investigations.

“In his statement, Chief Lopez apparently relied only upon the statements provided by the officers involved in the shooting,” Holmes said in a statement Friday. “It is disappointing that Chief Lopez would release an incomplete version of events before the finalization of the investigation being conducted by the State Bureau of Investigation and the internal affairs investigation that he said was being conducted by his own department.”

After the shooting, Mbuthia was placed on administrative leave with pay as the SBI looks into the case, which is standard procedure in an officer-involved shooting.

Community vigil

Ocampo, the youngest of three brothers, two in this area and one in Honduras, also has a wife and child in Honduras, according to Holmes.

Holmes said because Ocampo was shot by a police officer, his family had not received services typically provided to homicide victims in this area.

“These kinds of cases often end up in litigation,” Holmes said Friday. “But what I would love to see is to find a way to resolve this case that’s healing for this family, the community and the police officers.”

A community vigil is set for 7 p.m. Sunday at 804 Park Ave., Durham, and people are encouraged to bring flowers and candles.

A fund has been set up at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on West Chapel Hill Street in Durham to help defray the cost of shipping Ocampo’s body to Honduras for burial.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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