Autopsy: North Dakota man killed by police was shot in the back of the head
DEVILS LAKE, N.D.—An autopsy report for a Devils Lake man who was killed by police in Devils Lake found he was shot in the back of the head, and now his family is calling for criminal charges against the officer who fired the weapon.
The death of Daniel Aaron Fuller was ruled a homicide following an autopsy, though Grand Forks Coroner Mary Ann Sens stresses that the autopsy findings do not necessarily "indicate a criminal homicide, which is determined by a legal process."
Fuller, 26, died from a "gunshot wound to the head" July 5, according to autopsy findings from the UND Forensic Pathology Practice Center. Devils Lake Police Chief Joe Knowski confirmed the unarmed man was being chased by two plainclothes officers in Southview Estates on suspicions Fuller broke into a mobile home before he was fatally shot by a plainclothes on-duty officer.
The autopsy report said "the discharge of the firearm was apparently inadvertent," but the injury was "inflicted by another person during an intentional and harmful act directed at the decedent" and found "the manner of death was certified as homicide."
Because the officers were in street clothes, they were not wearing body cameras, Knowski said. However, portions of the incident were captured on a Devils Lake police cruiser dash cam, he said, but that video has not been made public.
Sens said the Forensic Center defines a homicide as a death "due to a volitional act by another person with the intent to cause fear, harm or death."
Knowski said homicide, in the forensic sense, means the death was caused by a human but doesn't necessarily mean there was intent.
"It doesn't indicate murder," he said.
Fuller's sister, Allyson Bartlett, said her family was told by the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which is assisting in the case, that police found Fuller lying in the grass. Investigators won't show the family the dashcam video that caught the seconds leading up to the shooting, but Marla Fuller—Daniel Fuller's mother—said she was told by the BCI that her son was pistol-whipped three times by an officer before being shot in the back of the head.
"If an officer is willing or goes to the extreme of hitting someone with their gun, it doesn't make sense why he shot him if he already hit him," Bartlett said.
The autopsy report that was shown to Forum News Service by Daniel Fuller's family states the bullet entered the midline of the back of his head near the level of his ears. The skin around the bullet wound was blackened with soot, and there are indications he suffered blunt force injuries to his head, the report said.
The Devils Lake Police Department released Daniel Fuller's name the day after he was fatally shot, but it has not identified the officers involved in the shooting, citing legal advice from Ramsey County State's Attorney Kari Agotness. The officers have invoked Marsy's Law to keep their names from being made public. The officer who fired the weapon has been put on administrative leave.
It's frustrating that officials have waited so long to release the officers' names, Bartlett said, adding she and her family want policy changes when it comes to officer-involved shootings.
"The police chief stated Marsy's law on TV as to why not naming the officer," Marla Fuller said. "He (the officer who shot Daniel Fuller) is not the victim, we are."
'It's just been a nightmare'
The incident started after officers responded to reports of a man who was "running through the trailer court" at Southview and attempting to break into homes. Police said Daniel Fuller fit the description of the man, but he fled on foot and scaled a fence.
Police tried to apprehend him, Knowski said. Bartlett said investigators told her dashcam video appears to show there was a struggle before an officer's gun was discharged. She said investigators said what appeared to be a struggle was quick.
Investigators are trying to determine whether there was a struggle, Knowski said. He, Agotness and representatives with the state Attorney General's Office, which oversees the BCI, met Friday to discuss how to proceed in the case, but Knowski said evidence is being sent to experts for further analysis.
Marla Fuller said investigators told her it appeared Daniel Fuller had his arms out while sitting "like he was surrendering" before he was shot.
"It's just been a nightmare," Marla Fuller said.
When asked questions about the case, BCI spokeswoman Liz Brocker pointed to the Attorney General's website, which says it does not comment on ongoing criminal investigations. She deferred all questions to Agotness, who said she would not release any further information until the state agency completes its investigation.
Criminal information, including video of crime scenes, cannot be released until the case is closed, pursuant to the state's open record laws.
Marla Fuller said investigators won't show the video to family because it is an ongoing investigation, but based on what they have been told, the family feels Fuller's death was not an accident.
One of the plainclothes officers who was off-duty but at the scene was attempting to call medical staff before the shooting because Daniel Fuller was injured, Bartlett said.
Bartlett said she believes her brother fled because he had a warrant out for his arrest in connection to a theft of property charge from November. That case was dismissed after Daniel Fuller died.
Fuller's blood alcohol content at the time of death was 0.265 percent, but he had no other drugs in his system, according to the autopsy report.
'Waiting for answers'
Marsy's law gives victims who invoke the law a set of rights, including keeping "information or records that could be used to locate or harass a victim or the victim's family" confidential. Daniel Fuller's family has invoked the law but spoke with Forum News Service nonetheless, because they feel the officer should not have had the option of using Marcy's Law.
"It's been 50 days since Danny was shot and killed by an officer of the Devils Lake Police Department," Marla Fuller said. "We are still waiting for answers. We want to know why this officer has not been named."
Knowski said he wishes his office could release the names of the officers. He said he understands the public wants information, but investigators want to cover all of their bases before deciding whether to press charges. He said his office will be open to whatever happens.
"This is really, technically, kind of a fresh incident," he said. "This office, we are trying to be as transparent as we can."
Marla Fuller said she believes the video should be enough to bring charges against the officer.
"Will it be a fair trial once it is brought?" she asked, adding police and the state's attorney work closely on the case. "Are they going to be objective in prosecuting one of their own?"
Bartlett said her brother was troubled but was not a career or violent criminal.
"It seemed like when he made bad choices, it was always just always an extreme for him," she said.
She noted a 2014 case that was brought after he attempted to kill himself. His family had him committed involuntarily for a drug overdose, but he was angry when he woke up at Altru Hospital in Grand Forks, Bartlett said. He became combative and started throwing items before pushing a nurse, according to court documents. He pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for injuring the nurse.
He also pleaded guilty in 2012 to driving under the influence, as well as burglary in a separate case from that year. Court documents said he broke into a mobile home in Devils Lake and took a laptop and beer, a Class C felony crime that resulted in no jail time.
"Everybody has their struggles," Marla Fuller said. "He is not a bad kid."
The family wanted Daniel Fuller to get help after the overdose, but prison was the only option, Bartlett said. He was a "totally different person" when he was released from incarceration, Bartlett said.
"He just vowed to the family he was never ever going back there and wanted to make better choices in life," she said. "He was no longer suicidal. He was happy."