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No clarity on whether Capitol Hill shooting was justified

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Highlights
  • Had shooting occurred earlier, it would have been justified, says CNN legal analyst
  • But police should have "taken a breath" if she got out of the car unarmed
  • A professor says police had no way of knowing whether Carey posed a threat

By Tom Watkins

The 34-year-old dental hygienist from Stamford, Connecticut, had just rammed her black luxury car through barricades and into police cruisers near the U.S. Capitol, one of Washington's securest areas.

In the car with Miriam Carey was her year-old daughter.

Police say Carey then sped down Pennsylvania Avenue before crashing. Two law enforcement officers were injured, and officers fatally shot her.

But was the shooting of the unarmed woman justified?

Had Carey been shot a few moments earlier, such as when police had surrounded her car and she drove into them or as she sped off, it would have been justified because she had used her car as a deadly weapon, pointing it at the officers, said Mark O'Mara, a CNN legal analyst.

But if the shooting occurred after the car stopped and if Carey had gotten out, as some accounts unconfirmed by CNN have suggested, that changes things, he said.

"If she did not turn on them like she was going for a gun, something to at that point say the threat is ongoing and immediate and imminent, then maybe the police should have taken a breath, waited," O'Mara said.

They would have quickly determined that she posed no threat, he said.

But Maki Haberfeld, chairwoman of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said police would have had no way of knowing whether Carey posed a threat as she got out of the car, and therefore the shooting was justified.

"We live in times of heightened alert as far as terrorist activities are concerned," she said. "The fact that she was not displaying a gun doesn't mean anything, because bombers don't necessarily display anything. They have the explosives around their waist, usually.

"It's a matter of a split-second decision that the police officer needs to take before someone explodes himself. It's all about the larger context. They just push the button, or it could be activated from a remote location."

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