Federal agents seek immunity in police killing of Jamarion Robinson in Georgia
Monteria Robinson, top right, is seeking justice for her son, Jamarion Robinson, left. Clayton County police officer Eric Heinze and U.S. Marshall Kristopher Hutchens, bottom right, are seeking immunity from state prosecution for the murder of Jamarion Robinson, saying they were acting as part of a federal operation. | Photos: AP

ATLANTA—One minute and fifty-seven seconds. That’s the amount of time that passed between the first and last bullet that officers of the Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force fired at Jamarion Robinson on Aug. 5, 2016, in East Point, Georgia. Clayton County officer Eric Heinze and U.S. Marshall Kristopher Hutchens, among others, left the man with 76 bullet wounds and then dragged his body down a flight of stairs while he was handcuffed.

Seven years later, Robinson’s mother, Monteria, is seeking justice in court for the police who killed her son. Ms. Robinson is the furthest she’s been in her fight to prosecute the officers and just wrapped up a lengthy chapter in her journey.

Just over a month ago, the trial to determine whether Heinze and Hutchens would receive qualified immunity wrapped up, with U.S. District Judge Victoria Marie Calvert promising a verdict by September. If they lose their immunity, the case will go to criminal court, where the two officers will be tried for felony murder.

On that August day back in 2016, officers from seven agencies, including the U.S. Marshals Service, served a warrant for Jamarion Robinson’s arrest for alleged arson and pointing a firearm at a police officer. At the time, Robinson was homeless and staying with his girlfriend in East Point, a small city on the southside of the Atlanta Metro Area.

While police did have an arrest warrant, they did not have a search warrant for his girlfriend’s house. Robinson had recently been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and even though police were aware of this fact, a mental health practitioner was not on the scene when the warrant was served.

In a cell phone video of the shooting recorded from a neighboring house, police can be seen breaking open the door and then opening fire into the house from the doorway. The camera footage remains unstable and flashes away from the door momentarily. About 20 seconds later, the door comes back into focus, only this time a majority of the squad is now inside the house, shots still echoing throughout the residential townhome neighborhood.

Around a minute after the first shots are fired, the wave of bullets temporarily ceases. The silence doesn’t last forever, though. Soon, a low-frequency thump caused by a concussion grenade is heard, followed by three more shots. While the majority of the bullets were fired within the first 60 seconds, it is on this last round of fire that Monteria Robinson and the family are focusing their case.

In an attempt to strip these officers of their federal immunity due to their employment by the U.S. Marshals Service, the Fulton County District Attorney is prosecuting them on the basis that they did not have the proper warrants to enter Robinson’s girlfriend’s house and that they used excessive force in the process of killing him.

While it was a state-level court that initially charged Heinze and Hutchens with felony murder, the two petitioned for their trial to be moved to federal court, given that they were acting as a part of the federal task force.

In order to initially decide whether their trial would stay at the federal level or go back down to the state, the two opposing parties made their case to Judge Calvert in October 2022. The defense argued the trial should stay in federal court due to the fact the task force was a federal entity, while the prosecution pointed out that because the state was trying the felony murder charges, the case ought to stay at the state level. In the end, Calvert ruled on the side of the defense and the dispute over the officers’ qualified immunity would go to trial.

Eight months later, in an unusually cool Atlanta May, the trial convened in a frigid federal courtroom. For many lengthy eight-hour days, prosecutors from the Georgia State Attorney’s office alleged that the two officers violated Robinson’s constitutional rights, and therefore should not be able to claim qualified immunity.

The prosecution team bases their case on a few key points. First, there is the question of whether the task force acted improperly on the basis that they did not have a search warrant for the house. There are many stipulations concerning how various types of warrants must be executed, and the prosecution laid out how the mishandling of the arrest warrant by the task force violated Robinson’s constitutional rights.

One question that Calvert must consider is whether or not the task force even had the appropriate warrant. An arrest warrant is generally not sufficient for entering the house of a third party if it is not the primary residence of the person subject to the warrant. Prosecutors pointed out that Robinson was homeless at the time, and his girlfriend’s house was not his primary residence. Evidence of a primary residence can include receiving mail at an address or parking a car overnight, neither of which fit Robinson’s circumstances.

On the witness stand, former Atlanta Police Sgt. Warren Pickard, whom prosecutors pointed out was the most awarded Atlanta police officer of all time, testified that Robinson was not living at his girlfriend’s house, he was simply “laying his head” there. According to Pickard, this term signifies that someone is simply sleeping in a residence but does not live there or have regular access to it. All of these points combined, according to the prosecution, show that the task force should have never entered Robinson’s girlfriend’s house.

There are further questions for Calvert to consider in regard to the warrant, however. As raised by the defense and their witnesses, a property search warrant is not needed if the individual poses an immediate danger to themselves or the public. Heinze and Hutchens’ lead attorney, Lance LoRusso, argued that Robinson was such a threat that officers had no choice but to immediately go in and confront him.

On the other hand, Pickard pointed out on cross-examination that during the task force investigation, they sent the townhouse handyman to the apartment for the purpose of finding out whether Robinson was inside the apartment. As the prosecutors pointed out, police would never send an unrelated civilian into harm’s way for the purpose of an investigation. The prosecution made this part of the argument clear to the judge: If Robinson was such a threat to the public that officers had no choice but to go in without a search warrant, why would they send a handyman there as part of their investigation?

Aside from the matter of warrants, the second important question for Calvert to consider is whether the task force used excessive force when they shot and killed Robinson. After firing dozens of bullets into him, task force officers threw a flash bang grenade at his body to determine whether he was still conscious or alive. The task force made clear that Robinson did not respond and stated in the civil trial that they did not shoot any more bullets after the grenade detonated.

However, in the video, gunshots can be heard following the loud bang, as confirmed by an audio expert brought in as a defense witness. In the video, an officer outside the townhome can be seen jolting their shoulders up after the gunfire and quickly turning to face the open door of the house. Judge Jill Pryor of the Eleventh Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals ruled in Monteria Robinson’s civil appeal that these were grounds to consider the gunfire came from inside the house after the flash bang.

As pointed out several times in the Qualified Immunity trial, it is illegal for an officer to shoot an individual who does not pose any threat to themselves or another person. Given that the officers themselves admitted Robinson did not respond to the flash-bang grenade, the prosecution bases their case on the fact that the task force used excessive force in the raid and should have their qualified immunity stripped.

On June 22, both sides wrapped up their cross-examinations, agreeing to deliver their closing arguments to Judge Calvert so as not to extend the trial anymore, as it had already been extended multiple days to accommodate witnesses. Calvert let both sides know she would have her decision by September.

If she decides to strip Heinze and Hutchens of their qualified immunity, they will go to criminal court, where they will face their original felony murder charges. If not, Monteria Robinson will have the chance to appeal for one last effort to send the two officers to jail.

Before the court adjourned for good, Ms. Robinson gave an impact statement to address the courtroom and to speak on the character of her son, Jamarion. She approached the stand alone, holding only a document of prepared words. She spoke of how Jamarion Robinson played football for Clark Atlanta University before police killed him. While it was his dream to play in the NFL, he took a year off from school and football in order to help make ends meet when his mother was struggling to pay the bills.

Ms. Robinson closed with a statement aimed at the judge and the police who shot and killed her son: “What they did to my son was nothing short of a terrorist act on American soil.”


Erica Meade
Erica Meade

Erica Meade is an organizer with the Angelo Herndon Club in Atlanta, Georgia. She got her start in political organizing through mutual aid in D.C., her hometown, before becoming involved with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.