OMAHA — An Omaha grand jury indicted Tuesday a White bar owner on manslaughter and other charges in the shooting death of a Black man during a struggle amid rioting sparked by the death of George Floyd.
Jacob Gardner, 38, was indicted on manslaughter; use of a firearm in the commission of a felony; attempted first-degree assault, and terroristic threats in connection with the May 30 killing of 22-year-old James Scurlock, who was shot after jumping on Mr. Gardner’s back.
The indictments by the Douglas County grand jury came three months after county attorney Don Kleine declined to press charges, concluding the shooting was self-defense, but afterward called a grand jury and named a special prosecutor amid political pressure spurred by “Justice for James” protests.
Special prosecutor Frederick Franklin said Omaha police were able to gather additional information during the grand jury investigation about Mr. Gardner’s “state of mind” from his cell phone and Facebook messenger account.
“There was evidence that was gathered and presented to the grand jury about activity that Jake Gardner was engaged in prior to even coming in contact with James Scurlock,” said Mr. Franklin at a press conference. “That evidence can reasonably construed as an intent to use a firearm for purposes of killing someone.”
If convicted on all four counts, Mr. Gardner, who previously owned The Hive and Gatsby bars in the Old Market neighborhood, could be sentenced to 95 years in prison, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
Attorney Justin Wayne, who represents the Scurlock family, said the family was thankful for the indictments, but that “it shouldn’t have taken this long.”
“Think about that. If we didn’t call for a grand jury, this case is over,” said Mr. Wayne at a press conference outside the courthouse with family members.
Mr. Franklin, who was appointed in June, said he initially believed he would stand before the press and “say the same thing that Don Kleine said, which was that the shooting was justifiable self-defense.”
“But I can tell you that there is evidence that undermines that, and again that evidence comes primarily from Jake Gardner himself,” he said.
During a scuffle outside The Hive, two men approached Jacob Gardner, who lifted his shirt to show a gun in his waistband as he walked backwards. The men tackled him to the street, as shown on surveillance and cell video.
They dispersed after Mr. Gardner fired his gun twice in what have been described as warning shots, and he was attempting to stand up when Mr. Scurlock jumped on his back and put him in a headlock. Authorities say Mr. Gardner shouted “get off me” repeatedly before firing the gun behind his back, hitting Mr. Scurlock.
Protest groups have argued that Mr. Gardner is racist, which he denies, and that Mr. Scurlock was trying to disarm the bar owner.
Mr. Franklin said that the grand jury’s indictments were based on the law and not Mr. Gardner’s views on race.
“I can assure you that it would have been contrary to what I consider to be justice for Jake Gardner to be indicted because the grand jurors believed him to be a racist, because being a racist is not against the law,” Mr. Franklin said. “He was not indicted because he may or may not be a racist.”
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert asked residents to “accept the grand jury’s decision and respect the confidentiality of the grand jury process.”
“The case against Jake Gardner will now move to trial,” she said in a statement. “The U.S. Constitution guarantees all defendants, including Mr. Gardner, a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury. My priority now will be to keep our citizens and the city safe.”
Like many U.S. cities, Omaha was the scene of peaceful protests as well as vandalism and rioting following Floyd’s death May 25 in Minneapolis police custody. The four officers involved have been charged with criminal offenses.