ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - More than two-and-a-half years after 49 people were massacred at a gay nightclub in Florida, a prosecutor said Wednesday that no clubgoers were hit by responding officers’ bullets and each time responding officers fired their weapons was reasonable and justified.
State Attorney Aramis Ayala said at a news conference that she had issued letters of clearance to the 14 law enforcement officers who fired more than 180 shots during a more than three-hour standoff with gunman Omar Mateen at the Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June 2016. Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
Ayala released the findings a day before the one-year anniversary of another Florida mass shooting - the massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
The six-month review of the Pulse nightclub massacre included 350 witness statements, police radio traffic, officers’ body and dash cameras, footage from cameras inside the club and 911 calls, according to Deborah Barra, the state attorney’s chief assistant, who led the review.
“No civilians were struck. Each time law enforcement pulled the trigger, it was reasonable and justified,” Barra said.
Dozens of other clubgoers were wounded during the massacre but lived. None of them was hit by law enforcement bullets, although there was a near-miss when two officers fired at a club patron who had come out of a bathroom during the standoff, crouching low and peeking around a corner. Officers commanded the patron to show his hands, and when the clubgoer didn’t comply, they fired. Bullets hit a mirror and either part of a door or wall but not the patron, Barra said.
Mateen fired 186 times with an assault weapon and 22 times with a handgun. At one point, his assault weapon jammed, based on a spent shell found in the weapon, Barra said.
“That is significant because that actually saved lives,” she said.
At another time during the standoff, SWAT team members punched a hole through what they thought was a bathroom where clubgoers were trapped, but it ended up being a hallway. They later opened a hole through which patrons in the bathroom could escape.
The prosecutor’s office concluded that responding officers and deputies engaged with Mateen five separate times. Mateen was hit seven times during the fourth engagement and killed during the fifth engagement. Even though he was down after being shot, he appeared to have wires protruding from him and his handgun was just an inch or two from his reach. Fearing he had explosives, a SWAT team member shot him in the head to ensure he was no longer a threat, Barra said.
The wires turned out to be from an exit sign that had fallen.
Mateen’s wife was acquitted last year of aiding and abetting him and lying to FBI agents during a federal trial, and much of the evidence used in the review couldn’t be evaluated until afterward.
Orange County Sheriff John Mina, who was Orlando’s police chief at the time of the massacre, said officers were relieved by the prosecutor’s findings.
“I’m relieved for the officers and deputies, the brave men and women who went inside there and risked their own lives,” Mina said. “They now have final closure and relief that they weren’t responsible for the death of any victim.”
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