HUNTERSVILLE – The Mecklenburg County District Attorney will not seek charges against Huntersville Police Department officers involved in the shooting death of a local resident in January of this year.
On July 9, following a six-month investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and a review of those findings, District Attorney Spencer Merriweather III released a report stating “evidence in this case would be insufficient to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Sgt. (John) Allen and Officer (Travis) Watts did not act in self-defense” in the Jan. 13 shooting death of 42-year-old Joseph C. Hilton.
In the report, a summary of the incident states:
“On Jan. 13 at approximately 8:14 p.m., Huntersville officers were dispatched to Hilton’s home, 9320 Gilead Hill Ct., in reference to a domestic assault complaint by a woman identified as Hilton’s girlfriend.
“When officers arrived, they located the decedent’s girlfriend on the porch of the home with apparent injuries to her face, and decided they were going to arrest Hilton for committing an assault on a female. Hilton’s girlfriend informed the officers that she believed Hilton was on the second floor of the residence and that he was suicidal and would be armed. Officers made entry into the first floor of the home where they announced their presence and unsuccessfully attempted to call the defendant downstairs for over twenty minutes.
“Sgt. John Allen, Officer Travis Watts, Officer Benjamin McCormack and Officer Austin McEntire then proceeded upstairs to perform an arrest of Hilton. Hilton was located in the master bedroom lying on his stomach in the bed. According to the officers present, when they moved into the bedroom to arrest Hilton, he sat up quickly with a semi-automatic firearm in his right hand pointed in the direction of Officer McEntire.
“Sgt. Allen and Officer Watts, describing what they believed to be an imminent threat, then fired in the direction of the decedent. Sgt. Allen fired his department issued Smith and Wesson M&P rifle. Officer Watts fired his department issued Glock 22 .40 caliber pistol. The gun reported to have been wielded by the decedent fell into a pile of clothes into a directly underneath the decedent’s right hand. The length of time from the point the decedent began to sit up until the cessation of gunfire was less than five seconds. The gunfire itself lasted approximately two and a half seconds.”
Hilton was struck 17 times and died.
According to the District Attorney report, officers involved said when they arrived on the scene, Hilton’s girlfriend (referenced as “E.S.” in the report) told them Hilton had been drinking during the day – autopsy findings indicated Hilton had a blood alcohol concentration of .17 (.08 is the legal standard for intoxication).
Footage on the officers’ body-worn cameras (BWC) captured some of the conversations with the girlfriend, during which she said Hilton had been acting “suicidal” and had weapons in the house.
The report states: “Specifically, she tells them that he has a pistol under his mattress and rifles in the closet. Officers then entered the residence. After officers later informed E.S. that they were going to have to go upstairs because the decedent was not coming downstairs, BWC footage captures E.S. telling officers that the decedent had been suicidal lately, to ‘be armed because he’ll be armed,’ and ‘when you go up there, just know he will have guns.’”
During post-incident interviews with investigators, some conducted in the early morning hours of January 14 and others held on January 16 and 19, officer statements included conflicting accounts about whether Hilton fired a weapon at officers and about lighting conditions in the bedroom where the encounter took place.
But Allen, Watts, and McEntire – who were in the room – said when they approached Hilton, he raised up with a handgun in his right hand. McCormack, who was outside the bedroom, reported that he did not see a gun but did see “a white male in the process of sitting up in the bed.”
The report states: “Sgt. Allen, Officer Watts, Officer McEntire, and Officer McCormack were all present when the encounter took place. Although no BWC was angled in a direction to capture images of the decedent’s right hand or any weapon in it, three officers, including Sgt. Allen, Officer Watts, and Officer McEntire reported that the decedent sat up with a gun in his right hand pointed towards Officer McEntire.
“The fourth officer, Officer McCormack, looked into the bedroom and only reported seeing a white male in the process of sitting up in the bed prior to hearing gunshots, but Officer McCormack’s BWC demonstrates his body was primarily angled away from the room in the moments before and during the shooting.
“In addition, a black semi- automatic handgun with a brown grip matching the description given by Officer McEntire was found on the floor underneath where the decedent’s right hand came to rest.”
The report states Hilton’s Smith & Wesson Model 39-2, 9mm handgun was located on the floor next to the bed under the decedent’s right hand. The magazine was fully loaded. The hammer was cocked back and there was no round in the chamber. Agents were unable to locate any spent 9mm cartridge cases or projectiles and there was no evidence tending to show that the decedent actually fired his weapon.
The report states “despite the perceptions and recollections of these three officers, there is no evidence tending to show that the decedent actually fired his weapon.” But, the district attorney’s report also states “the question of whether the decedent actually fired his weapon is not determinative of a claim of self-defense.”
Report purpose, process
In the report, Merriweather states the “purpose of this review was to examine whether the actions of Sergeant John Allen and Officer Travis Watts of the Huntersville Police Department (HPD) were unlawful when they shot and killed the decedent.
“As you know,” Merriweather wrote, “this letter specifically does not address issues relating to tactics, or whether officers followed correct police procedures or HPD Directives.”
Merriweather also said he and a senior assistant district attorney responded to the scene and monitored the investigation. The process included a review of the investigative file provided by the SBI and, consistent with the District Attorney’s Office Officer-Involved Shooting Protocol, the case was also presented to the District Attorney’s Homicide Team, which is comprised of the office’s most experienced prosecutors.”
A section in the report also summaries the legal standards applied to investigate the incident. It states: “The law recognizes an inherent right to use deadly force to protect oneself or others from death or great bodily harm. This core legal principle is referred to as the right to “self-defense.” A police officer does not lose the right to self-defense by virtue of becoming a police officer. Officers are entitled to the same protections of the law as every other individual. An imminent threat to the life of a police officer entitles the officer to respond in such a way as to stop that.”