Connecticut trooper acquitted in shooting death of Black college student following chase

A white Connecticut state trooper was acquitted of all charges Friday in the death of Mubarak Soulemane, a Black 19-year-old community college student who was shot as he sat behind the wheel of a stopped stolen car holding a kitchen knife and apparently in the throes of a mental health crisis.

Trooper Brian North, 33, could have faced up to 40 years in prison if he had been convicted of first-degree manslaughter in the Jan. 15, 2020, shooting. The state's inspector general said the shooting shouldn't have happened because North and other officers were not in imminent danger. But the six-person jury in Milford acquitted him on that charge and two lesser counts: second-degree manslaughter and negligent homicide.

North showed little emotion as the verdicts were read. Afterward, he shook hands with his lawyers and hugged the head of the state police union. North didn't comment while leaving court, but his lead attorney, Frank Riccio II, said the trooper is still shaken by the shooting.

“This is not something that he will ever live down, because it was a very traumatic experience,” Riccio said. “The verdict is obviously favorable for him, but it doesn’t change what happened on Jan. 15.”

Relatives and friends of Soulemane, including his mother and sister, declined to comment while leaving the courthouse. Mark Arons, a lawyer for the family, said they were devastated by the verdict.

“We have questions about whether justice was fully done and received here,” Arons said. “The trooper gets to live his life and Mubarak’s never coming back."

He said the verdict marked another tragedy for the family, but that it wouldn't affect the family's lawsuit against North and the other officers at the scene that day.

"They’ve had to relive through the trial all the horrific events that unfolded that terrible afternoon, early evening. And then to hear the acquittal on all the three counts, it’s a tragic loss all over again.”

The case caught the attention of the local NAACP and the Rev. Al Sharpton, but race was not raised as a factor in the shooting during the trial.

Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut State Conference of the NAACP, called the acquittal “a major atrocity.”

“Very disappointing. It's a huge setback. Shame on the jury,” Esdaile said by phone. “They didn’t have to murder this young man. I think this is a disgusting decision.”

On the day of the shooting, North fired his handgun seven times at close range into the car's driver's window after Soulemane led police on a high-speed chase through several towns on Interstate 95. The shooting happened less than a minute after the car crashed into another vehicle in West Haven, ending the chase, and police surrounded the car.

North testified that he fired when Soulemane pulled out a 9-inch knife and made a threatening movement. He said he believed Soulemane posed a danger to police officers who were on the other side of the car and had just broken the passenger door window.

But Inspector General Robert Devlin, who investigates all police uses of deadly force in the state, said no officers were in danger because the stolen car was boxed in and Soulemane couldn’t go anywhere. He said officers made no attempt to de-escalate the situation.

The state police union, meanwhile, criticized Devlin for charging North, saying he had been forced to make a split-second decision and believed he was protecting other officers.

Devlin issued a statement after the trial, saying that although his office is disappointed by the verdict, it respects the jury’s decision.

Soulemane struggled with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to his family. His mother, sister and girlfriend, who testified at the trial, said in the days leading up to the shooting, Soulemane’s mental health problems were worsening and he was acting paranoid and erratically — behavior he previously displayed when he went off his medications.

According to police, the events that led to Soulemane's death began when he displayed the knife at an AT&T store in Norwalk and unsuccessfully tried to steal a cellphone. He then slapped a Lyft driver and drove off in the driver’s car after the driver got out, leading police on a 30-mile (48-kilometer) chase from Norwalk to West Haven during the afternoon rush hour at speeds of up to 100 mph (161 kph).

State police body camera videos show that after the case ended, a West Haven officer smashed the passenger door window of the stolen vehicle before another trooper, Joshua Jackson, shot Soulemane with a Taser through the window, though it had no effect on Soulemane, who was wearing a heavy coat.

North testified that he fired his gun because he thought the West Haven officer — whom he couldn't see — had leaned in through the smashed window and was in danger from Soulemane, who made a motion to the passenger side of the car while holding the knife.

“I was afraid that he was going to be stabbed in the face or the neck, which obviously can be a fatal injury,” North testified.

On cross-examination, Devlin said the videos showed the other officers were not trying to enter the vehicle and asked North if he still believes anyone was actually in danger.

“Not from what I could see now and after hearing testimony. But what I’m perceiving at the time is that there was danger,” North said.

In the lawsuit against the officers, Soulemane's mother, Omo Mohammad, offered to settle the wrongful death case for $13 million.