A Florida deputy who fatally shot a man carrying only an air rifle pleaded not guilty Wednesday to a manslaughter charge, and his attorney predicted no jury would convict a police officer who acted with force in such circumstances.
Broward Sheriff's Office Deputy Peter Peraza, 37, entered the plea at a brief court hearing. Outside the courtroom, more than three dozen law enforcement officers applauded in a show of support when Peraza emerged.
Peraza, who has worked for the sheriff's office for 14 years, faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted in the fatal shooting of Jermaine McBean, who was black. Peraza is white. Peraza's attorney, Eric Schwartzreich, said the case differs from others around the country in which unarmed black suspects have been shot by white officers.
"This isn't a racial issue. Deputy Peraza was doing nothing more than doing his job, protecting himself and protecting the community," Schwartzreich told reporters. "His intention is to go to trial and to fight these charges."
McBean, 33, was killed by Peraza in July 2013 while carrying a real-looking air rifle he had just purchased across his shoulders near his apartment complex. Two other deputies had guns drawn but did not fire.
A family attorney says McBean probably did not hear police commands that he drop the rifle because he was listening to music through earbuds. The family has accused the sheriff's office of a cover-up in a federal wrongful death lawsuit, which the agency denies.
"It was wrapped, he takes it out of the wrapping, walks down the street and then he is confronted by law enforcement, and then he goes into a public area where there are members of the community," Schwartzreich said of the air rifle. "What is Deputy Peraza supposed to do?"
Several members of the Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward also spoke outside the courtroom, contending the grand jury indictment of Peraza was a long time coming. It has been decades since a Florida law enforcement officer was charged criminally for an on-duty shooting.
Black Lives Matter Alliance member Jeff Weinberger was critical of the heavy law enforcement show of support for Peraza.
"They're here to protect and serve the public, not protect and serve themselves," he said. "Justice would be served for Peraza to be convicted."
Peraza is free on $25,000 bail and suspended without pay. The FBI also is investigating possible civil rights violations. No trial date has been set in the manslaughter case.
Jeff Marano, president of the Broward Police Benevolent Association union, said the Peraza case has put a chill into every local law enforcement officer who might second-guess their actions in a potentially deadly situation. Schwartzreich also called the indictment a political reaction to the current national debate over police use of force against black suspects.
"This is a tragedy, that he's going through this process," Marano told reporters.