Carlsbad, NM — On March 21, 2020, 25-year-old Charles “Gage” Lorentz was shot and killed by a National Park Ranger at Carlsbad Caverns National Park after he was pulled over for allegedly speeding on a dirt road. Body-camera footage of the incident was released last year showing that Lorentz was unarmed and did not do anything to provoke the force used by National Park Ranger Robert Mitchell. He was merely dancing.
Now, Lorentz’ mother is speaking out and telling her story of how the system is set up to prevent her from ever getting justice.
“I call this murder. What I would soon find out, though – as many families who lost loved ones at the hands of the police in this country have – is that the Department of Justice does not,” Kimberly Beck, Lorentz’ mother said in an op-ed this week. The federal officer who murdered Lorentz was not fired nor prosecuted. He was granted qualified immunity instead.
For those who may be unaware, the Supreme Court created qualified immunity in 1982. With that novel invention, the court granted all government officials immunity for violating constitutional and civil rights unless the victims of those violations can show that the rights were “clearly established.”
The court held in Harlow v. Fitzgerald that government actors are entitled to this immunity due to the “need to protect officials who are required to exercise discretion and the related public interest in encouraging the vigorous exercise of official authority.”
“Government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
As Anya Bidwell points out, although innocuous sounding, the clearly established test is a legal obstacle nearly impossible to overcome. It requires a victim to identify an earlier decision by the Supreme Court, or a federal appeals court in the same jurisdiction holding that precisely the same conduct under the same circumstances is illegal or unconstitutional. If none exists, the official is immune. Whether the official’s actions are unconstitutional, intentional or malicious is irrelevant to the test.
Beck is learning this the hard way despite gruesome video showing the unnecessary murder of her son.
In the video of her son’s death, Mitchell is seen ordering Lorentz to spread his legs and he complies at first, but then he started dancing to music that can be heard playing from someone else’s vehicle nearby. This act of defiance enraged Lorentz, who began commanding Lorentz to turn around and take his hands out of his pockets, and when Lorentz did not immediately obey, Mitchell shot him with his taser. At that point, the body camera cuts out for twenty-six seconds, and when the video resumes, Mitchell is on top of Lorentz and then fires his gun twice shortly after — once in the leg and once at point blank, directly into his heart.
Mitchell said that Lorentz punched him after he attempted to taser him a second time, which lead to the following scuffle and shooting. However, since those very important seconds in the film are missing, there is currently not enough evidence to confirm his story.
“The missing 26 seconds of the body cam footage that could reveal what happened to my son was never released to the family or the public; I have been told it is missing and irretrievable, though there is a chance there is some “metadata” available,” Beck explained. “This sparked a debate on Capitol Hill over police body cameras and the Interior Department’s often malfunctioning or missing recording equipment, yet no real progress has been made.”
Even if Mitchell’s version of events are correct, he still needlessly escalated the encounter. According to the police report, there were three witnesses who said that Mitchell lunged towards Lorentz with a taser but Lorentz fought back before being shot.
In the video, Mitchell can be heard explaining his side of the story.
“That’s when I shot him with a Taser. It did nothing. I went dry stun, he hit me somewhere right here on the side of my head. The fight was on, he grabbed me around the neck, he tried to push my head into the push bar and I came up and fired one round. I don’t know if I got him or not, but I definitely got him on the second one and he crumbled,” Mitchell said.
It took Mitchell over eight minutes to get the first aid kit from his vehicle, and then an additional four minutes before he made any attempt to check out Lorentz’s wounds.
Travis Lorentz, Gage’s father, said that New Mexico authorities were slow to provide them with any information about the case and seem like they are trying to hide something.
“It bothers me. It makes me think that they are trying to cover something up,” Travis Lorentz said.
No drugs were found in Lorentz’ system which is usually a reason cops give for justifying deadly force. It appears he was killed for doing nothing other than speeding and holding his hands in his pocket. A tragedy indeed.
“He was not in possession of drugs or alcohol and the coroner confirmed that he was not intoxicated. My son, who had a peaceful temperament and was level headed by nature, somehow ended up in an altercation with a park ranger that left him dead,” Beck wrote.
“My son was 25 years old. He had a heart of gold. I cannot change what happened that day in New Mexico. But our country can, in his name, change the systems that led to his death. I call on President Biden and Attorney General Garland to immediately implement in their own backyard the reforms they are touting for police departments across the country. The federal government should be leading by example here,” Beck said.