The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
The late morning of Oct. 19, 2020.
Thornton resident Ethan Freeman is sprawled in the lobby of the town’s elementary school, complaining of chest pains. The body cam of town Police Officer Matthew Yao shows him recognizing Freeman, soothing his anxieties, even removing his work boots before EMTs load him into an ambulance.
Seven hours later, Freeman erupts in rage when Yao answers a call and looks into the broken window at the front entrance of the 37-year-old’s basement apartment.
Freeman shouts profanities and slurs and threatens to kill Yao, who continues to use the calm demeanor of hours earlier.
But a minute later, Freeman tumbles through a broken window naked. Limping, Freeman continues to say he will kill Yao and charges him.
When Freeman is about 10 feet away, Yao shoots him twice in the chest.
On Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Jane Young ruled that Yao’s actions were legally justified, and used body cam video to show what happened between the two men. They posted reports of the investigation and video footage online.
Clips show an officer who tries to reason with a man who is at times delusional and paranoid, at other times hostile and threatening.
Prosecutors say Freeman had a history of bouts of mental illness, according to his family and landlord. He had not slept for days, and told ambulance workers he had taken methamphetamine, but an autopsy found traces of only marijuana, caffeine and nicotine in his body.
Yao had an understandable fear that he could be seriously harmed if Freeman attacked him, said homicide prosecutor Peter Hinckley, a senior assistant attorney general who oversaw the investigation.
Yao told investigators he initially was not concerned when the landlord called police that afternoon about Freeman’s erratic behavior, Hinckley said.
But Yao unholstered his gun when Freeman — who was 5-foot, 3-inches, 123 pounds — appeared hostile and at one point brandished a leg broken from a piece of furniture.
Yao tried to get out of Freeman’s line of sight and kept speaking to him, but Freeman continued with threats, profanities and a slur against Yao’s Asian heritage.
Yao told authorities he did not have the time to holster his gun and employ less lethal weapons such as his Taser, a chemical spray, or baton.
“Our role is not to second-guess what the officer did,” Hinckley said. Rather, the prosecutors have to determine if his actions fell within the law’s definition of justifiable deadly force for a police officer.
Thornton is a town of 2,500 located north of Plymouth in the foothills of the White Mountains.
Yao has been working light duty since the shooting and will now return to active duty, Police Chief Ken Miller said.
Yao has been an officer for about four years.
“That’s how he is all the time,” Miller said of Yao’s calm demeanor.
He said Yao took the shooting hard and has been on an emotional roller coaster, but he passed a psychological evaluation.
Once he saw the video, Miller knew the shooting would be deemed justified. But Yao was relieved when Deputy Attorney General Young eventually made the determination, Miller said.
Hinckley said the body camera footage proved crucial to matching Yao’s frame of mind with what took place.
He would not discuss what Freeman’s family thinks about the decision. He said they did not want the video of the incident released publicly.
“The video shows Mr. Freeman at his worst,” Hinckley said.
But prosecutors determined it was a homicide investigation and the public needed to know it was a full, fair and transparent investigation.
Hinckley said Yao knew Freeman from previous occasions, but no hostilities were ever involved until the afternoon of Oct. 19.
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