BILLINGS - A coroner’s inquest has been scheduled for early January in the death of an unarmed man shot and killed by a Billings police officer.
The coroner’s inquest in the death of 38-year-old Richard Ramirez, who was shot and killed April 14 by Billings Police Officer Grant Morrison, is scheduled to begin Jan. 6 and is expected to last two days, according to the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office.
“It’s our version of a grand jury,” Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said of the inquest.
According to police, Morrison shot Ramirez during a traffic stop on the South Side after Ramirez failed to obey the officer’s commands and made a “downward reaching motion” while seated in the back of a car stopped in an alley behind 421 S. 39th St.
Numerous investigators and witnesses, including Morrison, are expected to testify in the inquest.
The inquest, required by law in Montana when someone is killed by law enforcement, will be heard by a jury of seven people, who will be tasked with determining a cause of death and whether the killing was justified or criminal.
The proceeding is similar to a trial in that a prosecutor will present evidence and witness testimony and recommend a finding to the jury. However, there is no defense team. Members of the jury, though, will be allowed to question witnesses.
Unlike in a jury trial, where verdicts must be unanimous, the verdict in an inquest is reached by majority vote, according to Montana law.
Senior Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Ed Zink, who will be presenting the case to the jury, declined to speculate on the outcome of the inquest.
The shooting was captured by the dashboard camera in Morrison’s patrol car. Zink said that footage — which has not been made public — will be shown during the inquest and released after it’s over.
Members of Ramirez’s family have protested the killing and said they want charges filed against Morrison.
The shooting came 14 months after Morrison shot and killed another man, 32-year-old Jason James Shaw on Feb. 11, 2013, during a confrontation at a car outside a suspected drug house. Jurors in an August 2013 inquest ruled the shooting was justified.
Shaw, who was seated in a car, had ignored Morrison’s commands and reached for a weapon, which was later found to be a BB gun, according to testimony at the inquest.
Following Ramirez’s death, St. John and other members of the Billings Police Department released this information:
At around 11 p.m. on April 14, Morrison, who was on patrol, started following a red car with four passengers in it, one of whom he identified as Ramirez.
As Morrison followed the car, its driver, unprompted by Morrison, pulled into an alley behind 421 S. 39th St.
Ramirez, who has a history of drug convictions, had been identified as a suspect in a robbery Morrison responded to on April 13, 2013, police said. The victim of the robbery was shot in the arm and identified Ramirez as the shooter.
Before other officers arrived at the alley on April 14, Morrison approached the four people in the car.
Ramirez raised and lowered his hands six times while Morrison was ordering the people in the car to keep their hands where they could be seen.
Ramirez failed to comply with multiple commands from Morrison and made a “downward reaching movement” while seated in the rear of the car.
At that point, Morrison fired three shots from his sidearm, at least one of which hit Ramirez in the torso.
Additional officers arrived within seconds of the last shot being fired.
Ramirez died of his injuries after being taken to Billings Clinic. It was determined he was unarmed.
Investigations and reviews
The killing set in motion several internal reviews and investigations, and landed Morrison on paid administrative leave until he was cleared to return to work by a mental health professional.
Morrison has returned to work and has temporarily been assigned to work with a DEA task force in investigating prescription-drug-related crimes, according to the chief.
Following a fatal officer-involved shooting, the chief has explained, the department’s detectives launch a homicide investigation, the results of which are handed over to the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office for review and presentation during an inquest.
The department also does an administrative review to determine if the officer followed policy and procedure.
St. John said earlier this week that the administrative review is ongoing and will be made public around the time of the inquest.
The killing will also go before a shooting review committee of five officers selected by the chief. That committee is “in the process of being seated,” he said.
State investigators also independently reviewed the case, according to the chief.
“To ensure the process is as open as possible, and to avoid any appearance of impropriety, (County Attorney) Scott Twito asked our Prosecution Services Bureau to review the case,” Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes said in an email. “The Billings PD and the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office are confident in their procedures but asked for an outside review to make sure they’re doing the best they can.”
The “great majority” of the findings in these reviews and investigations will be made public around the time of the inquest, St. John said.