Black Lives MatterNews & Opinion

No Charges Against U.S. Marshal in Shooting Death of Frankie Jennings

Mecklenburg County DA Spencer Merriweather will not pursue charges against Marshal

Eric Tillman, U.S. Marshal that shot and killed Frankie Jennings
Senior Inspector Eric Tillman of The U.S. Marshal Service (Image courtesy of CMPD body-worn camera footage)

On Tuesday, District Attorney Spencer Merriweather announced his office’s decision in the shooting death of Frankie Jennings by a U.S. Marshal Services task force member in Charlotte on March 23, 2021. Merriweather’s office will not pursue charges against Senior Inspector Eric Tillman of the U.S. Marshal Service, who was the shooter in the incident.

Tillman shot Jennings three times while he and other members of the U.S. Marshals’ Carolinas Regional Fugitive Task Force attempted to serve a warrant on Jennings in the parking lot of the Citgo gas station at the corner of Parkwood Avenue and The Plaza on March 23. Jennings had been pumping gas for his girlfriend when the task force members swooped into the parking lot. He was shot after running back to his car and attempting to drive away, as video released on Tuesday shows.

“Deputy Tate Mills and Senior Inspector Eric Tillman engaged with [Jennings] in a brief struggle at the driver’s side door of the Mercedes,” read Tuesday’s report. “During the struggle, the decedent was able to put the Mercedes in gear and the car began to move forward at which point Senior Inspector Tillman fired three rounds from his service weapon at [Jennings].” 

According to the report, investigators found a loaded Ruger P94 40S&W handgun in the cupholder in the center console of Jennings’ car. 

Six officers from local municipalities of the U.S. Marshals’ Carolinas Regional Fugitive Task Force (CRFTF) were present during the shooting: Senior Inspector Eric Tillman of the U.S. Marshals Service, Detective Mark Ruffin of the Mooresville Police Department, Officer Matthew Harris of the Gaston County Police Department, Officer Jamie Terry of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, Deputy Tate Mills of the Union County Sheriff’s Office, and Detective Stephen Helms of the Monroe Police Department.

The purpose of the CRFTF is to serve felony warrants and apprehend violent fugitives.

The decision by the DA claims that Tillman “fired his weapon because he feared for the life of the officers the Mercedes was heading toward, potentially for the life of Deputy Mills, who he believed was on the ground next to the car, and for his own life and the lives of the people to his left because of the gun Senior Inspector Tillman stated [Jennings] had been reaching toward.”

CMPD officers outside of crime scene in Charlotte
CMPD investigates the shooting at Parkwood Avenue and The Plaza. No US Marshall has ever been prosecuted for a shooting, despite the rates of incidence the agency sees. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Video of the incident shows Jennings attempting to move his vehicle forward through an opening before another vehicle, operated by Officer Matthew Harris, is driven in front of him with another vehicle out of frame to the left. It is not clear from the video if Jennings had any intentions of targeting officers or if he was simply fleeing.

In transcripts from Tillman, the CRFTF was serving a felony warrant on Frankie Jennings wherein he allegedly assaulted a law enforcement officer by dragging him with his car in Carolina Beach. That information, along with warrants out of Charlotte for felony possession of a firearm by felon, is what “informed his subjective beliefs and would be admissible evidence for the jury to consider,” according to the report.

The decision states Tillman saw a gun in the cup holder of Jennings’ Mercedes, then fired three rounds from his service weapon at Jennings.

Merriweather concludes the decision by stating, “Given the corroborated evidence that Senior Inspector Tillman was reasonable in his belief that he and other officers faced an imminent threat of great bodily harm or death, the evidence in this case would be insufficient to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Senior Inspector Tillman did not act in defense of himself or another.”

Frankie Jennings’ family holds a vigil on the night of the shooting

At a vigil held by Jennings’ family and local organizers on the evening of March 23, local NAACP leader Corinne Mack called for the release of footage from multiple surveillance cameras in and around the parking lot, which was finally released on Tuesday, more than three months later. She also stated she wanted to use the tragedy as an opportunity to lobby for all U.S. Marshals to wear body cameras.

Frankie Jennings
Latannya Jennings (left), sister of Frankie Jennings, speaks at a candlelight vigil in his honor on Tuesday, March 23. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Jennings was killed on his 32nd birthday, and some of his family was in town the day of the shooting for that reason, including his nephew, who turned 13 the same day. The crowd of around 90 people sang “Happy Birthday” to them that night. Frankie’s sister, Latannya Jennings, who was in town from New York for his birthday, pleaded with the many media outlets attending the vigil on Tuesday not to rush to judgment in painting her brother as a criminal.

“He’s a man, he’s a father, he’s a son, he’s an uncle, he’s a cousin, he’s a friend. Most of all, he’s a human, like all of us,” she said. “We all bleed the same blood. We all got one life, and the person that takes it from us should not be the blue-and-whites [police], it should not be the U.S. Marshals; the only person who has that say-so is the man upstairs.”

U.S. Marshal Service deputies act like local police with no accountability

In cities and towns across the country, the Marshals Service has set up task forces largely staffed by local law enforcement officers who get deputized as federal agents. According to a report from The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system, The Arizona Republic and USA Today, about two-thirds of the agency’s arrests since 2014 were of people wanted on local warrants, not federal ones, according to our analysis of federal data. 

Though many police departments have come under public scrutiny for shootings, marshals and their task forces have not — even though they are more likely to use their guns.

The Justice Department has refused to release the kind of information about marshal-involved shootings that major police departments make public. Reporters instead used news articles, court documents and police records to compile data on shootings involving the Marshals Service and its task forces from January 1, 2015 to September 10, 2020.

They found that at least 177 people were shot by a marshal, task force member or local cop helping in a marshals arrest; 124 people, mostly suspects and a handful of bystanders, died from their injuries. In addition, seven committed suicide after being shot.

On average, from 2015 to late 2020, they shot 31 people a year, killing 22 of them. By comparison, Houston police reported shooting an average of 19 people a year, killing eight. Philadelphia officers shot an average of nine people a year, killing three. Both departments employ roughly 6,000 officers, about the same number who serve in the Marshals Service and on its task forces.

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