A judge sentenced former Colorado police officer James Ashby to 16 years in prison on Thursday for the murder of an unarmed civilian in a 2014 on-duty shooting.
The case marks the first time in at least a decade that an officer has been convicted of murder and sentenced to hard time for fatally shooting a civilian in the line of duty.
In June, a jury found Ashby, a 33-year-old former cop in the town of Rocky Ford, guilty of second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Jack Jacquez, 27. Ashby faced up to 48 years in prison.
He will be eligible for parole in 5 years and must also pay a $10,000 fine, according to a tweet from Rob McCallum, a spokesman for Colorado courts.
Jacquez’s family believes the judge was lenient.
“It took me a couple of hours after the verdict was read (for it to settle in),” Jacquez’s father, Jack Jacquez Sr., told the Denver Post. “I was content at first and then started rethinking the whole situation and realized this man got off easy. If you ever want to commit a murder, go to Rocky Ford.”
Ashby reportedly confronted Jacquez on the night of Oct. 12, 2014, while Jacquez was skateboarding along a highway. Ashby initially claimed Jacquez responded to his questioning with profanity, but a civilian who was riding along with Ashby at the time later told detectives that Jacquez only said he was on his way home.
Investigators say Ashby then followed Jacquez, who was Hispanic, into a house belonging to Jacquez’s mother. Ashby claimed he believed Jacquez was a burglar or trespassing on the property.
When Ashby entered, a confrontation ensued and Ashby fired two shots.
An autopsy later revealed that a single bullet entered through Jacquez’s back, perforating his lung and three of the four chambers of his heart and severing his spinal cord.
Jacquez had gotten engaged to his pregnant girlfriend shortly before his death.
The shooting rocked the small farming town, sparking marches and a candlelight vigil. Less than two months earlier, a police officer had fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, bringing issues of race and policing into the national spotlight.
The coverage surrounding Brown’s death ― and the eventual decision not to charge the officer responsible ― led to increased scrutiny of the process by which officers are held accountable for using lethal force.
Ashby’s conviction and sentencing are a rarity, running counter to the general trend of officers escaping legal repercussions after fatal encounters with civilians.
Ashby is the first officer to be convicted of murder in an on-duty shooting since at least 2005, according to data compiled by Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminology at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University. This does not include officers convicted for off-duty incidents not related to police work.
By Stinson’s count, 77 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter resulting from police-involved shootings since the beginning of 2005. Given that police kill around 1,000 civilians every year, according to Stinson’s estimate, most still avoid prosecution entirely. Of the 77 who were charged, 27 officers so far have been convicted ― and Ashby was the only one to be convicted of murder. A number of other cases are still pending and the rest have ended in non-convictions, either through acquittal or dismissal.
Although prosecutors have been able to secure a handful of murder indictments for officers involved in fatal shootings, judges and juries almost never convict them on such severe charges.
In 2014 and 2015, no officers were convicted of either murder or manslaughter. A handful of officers have either been convicted of or have pled guilty to manslaughter charges so far this year, which carry significantly lighter sentences.
But these outcomes are still incredibly rare, especially for cases that go before a jury.
“Juries are very reluctant to second-guess police officers in violent encounters, especially shootings when an officer is on duty,” said Stinson. “We don’t know what juries really do behind the closed doors of deliberation, but it seems that they tend to think about it as if that was a family members of theirs who was a police officer.”
“They don’t want to believe that police officers could commit a murder,” he added.