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State Grand Jury Does Not Charge Officer Involved in Fatal Police Encounter in Pemberton Township

By rlsmetro on
Pemberton Township

A state grand jury has voted not to file any criminal charges after its deliberations regarding the death of Witney Rivera, 41, of Pemberton Township, who was fatally shot by an officer of the Pemberton Borough Police Department on July 19, 2019.

As required by statute, all fatal police encounters must be presented to a grand jury. According to available evidence, including video footage and the recorded statements of civilian witnesses, Mr. Rivera was armed with a scythe and advancing toward other individuals when he was shot.

The Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) investigated the fatal police encounter and presented it to 16 to 23 New Jersey residents called to serve on the grand jury in accordance with Directive 2019-4, the “Independent Prosecutor Directive” issued in 2019.

In July, OPIA issued standard operating procedures (“SOPs”) to ensure that these grand jury presentations are conducted in a neutral, objective manner and with appropriate transparency regarding the process, consistent with the Independent Prosecutor Directive.

The investigation included witness interviews, collection of forensic evidence, review of video footage, and autopsy results from the medical examiner.

After hearing testimony and evidence from the investigation, the grand jury concluded its deliberations yesterday, September 21, and voted “no bill,” meaning a majority of grand jurors found the actions of the officer who shot Mr. Rivera were justified and no charges should be filed against him.

According to the investigation, the shooting occurred at approximately 9:15 p.m. on July 19, 2019, when Police Officer William Roberts of the Pemberton Borough Police Department responded to an altercation between Mr. Rivera and other persons near Mr. Rivera’s residence on Kinsley Road in the Sunbury Village area of Pemberton Township.

When Officer Roberts arrived, he observed Mr. Rivera to be armed with a long scythe and advancing rapidly toward other individuals.

Officer Roberts gave repeated commands for Mr. Rivera to drop the weapon, but Mr. Rivera did not comply and continued to advance toward those individuals. Officer Roberts then fired at Mr. Rivera, fatally wounding him.

First aid was rendered to Mr. Rivera by officers arriving on the scene and emergency medical personnel. Mr. Rivera was transported to Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mt. Holly, where he was pronounced dead at approximately 10:00 p.m.

An autopsy determined that the cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds.

A 2019 law, P.L. 2019, c. 1, requires the Attorney General’s Office to conduct investigations of a person’s death that occurs during an encounter with a law enforcement officer acting in the officer’s official capacity or while the decedent is in custody.

It requires that all such investigations be presented to a grand jury to determine if the evidence supports the return of an indictment against the officer or officers involved.

After considering the facts, evidence, and testimony from the OPIA investigation, the state grand jury found the actions of the officer were justified.

An officer may use deadly force in New Jersey when the officer reasonably believes it is immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person from imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.

A conflicts check was conducted pursuant to the Independent Prosecutor Directive, and no actual or potential conflict of interest was found involving any individual assigned to the investigation.

Before presentation to the grand jury, the investigation was reviewed by OPIA Executive Director Thomas Eicher in accordance with the policies and procedures established for these presentations in the SOPs.