VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — The Virginia Beach police officer who fatally shot 25-year-old Donovon Lynch in March at the Oceanfront will not face criminal charges, as a special grand jury says he acted in self-defense, Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle announced Tuesday.
The special grand jury came to the conclusion that there was no probable cause to charge Solomon D. Simmons III, the officer who fatally shot Lynch. Stolle said that the special grand jury believed from reviewing the evidence and subpoenaing witnesses that Lynch could have been perceived as a threat to Simmons and multiple other people in the area after 50 gunshots had just gone off nearby.
Investigators said that Lynch had a registered gun with a round in the chamber at the time of the officer-involved shooting, and the gun was found in the bush line right next to where Lynch was shot. Simmons fired three shots with two striking Lynch.
The shooting occurred during a chaotic night at the Oceanfront on March 26 in which 10 people in total were shot and an officer was hit by a car.
Stolle and members of his office met with the Lynch family earlier in the day Tuesday to provide them a copy of the special grand jury’s report with the results of its investigation. Stolle said the family was not happy with the outcome, but declined to give further information, directing reporters to the Lynch family for comment.
The City of Virginia Beach has faced heavy criticism of its handling of the event from performer and producer Pharrell Williams, a Virginia Beach native and cousin of Lynch, saying a narrative has been controlled by “toxic energy.”
Late Tuesday night, the Lynch family announced in a press release it would hold a press conference Wednesday afternoon at 1 p.m. The release said the family would address why they believe the investigation into the shooting was mishandled by city and state officials.
They also will demand an independent investigation by the FBI to bring additional transparency to the shooting.
“While disappointed with the conclusions drawn by the Commonwealth’s Attorney and the state’s investigation, we were not surprised,” said Wayne Lynch, the father of Donovon. “It’s exactly why I’ve said from the beginning, that my son’s murder must be thoroughly investigated by federal authorities at the Department of Justice.”
The Virginia Beach Police Department turned the investigation into the officer-involved shooting over to Virginia State Police days after the shooting, but that investigation was impeded because several citizens refused to cooperate and provide information, according to Stolle. That’s why he then requested the special grand jury, which has subpoena power.
The special grand jury, made up of a panel of 11 citizens, met for months, according to Stolle’s office. They heard witness testimony, reviewed documents and other evidence, including video, before completing their final report.
Stolle said his office did not participate in the selection of those citizens.
“We thank the members of the special grand jury for their service and commend the Virginia State Police for their professional investigation. The death of Donovon Lynch is tragic, and my sympathies are with the Lynch family as they continue to mourn his loss,” Stolle said.
Tuesday’s presentation of the grand jury’s findings, which WAVY.com provided live, lasted more than two hours and included many of the same reports, maps, audio and video reviewed by the panel. Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Scott Lang presented much of the material.
Officers’ body-worn cameras captured more than 100 hours of footage that evening, but none shows the actual shooting of Donovon Lynch. However, the three shots fired by Simmons could be heard on multiple officers’ body cameras.
Simmons’ body camera, as previously reported, was not on at the time. Simmons had previously turned off his body camera as he got into his car to follow an injured person to the hospital.
Footage showed a chaotic scene that led to the shooting. Responding officers’ body cam video shows Simmons telling his fellow officers “I shot him” after the incident.
Lang also showed video from interviews with Simmons and another officer after the shooting. In that footage, Simmons said he heard the sound of a round being chambered in the gun, “the rack of a slide in a firearm.” He also said he saw Lynch crouched near the bushes then “rise up” to face toward the parking lot where the gunfire erupted earlier.
There were citizens and officers still in the parking lot at that time.
“In my mind, I’m thinking he’s going to start shooting into the parking lot,” Simmons recounted in the interview.
Simmons couldn’t recall what he said to Lynch in the moments before the shooting, but said he saw Lynch turn in his direction with a gun in his hand.
Stolle said Simmons’ concern for the safety of himself and others in that parking lot qualified the officer-involved shooting as self-defense.
An interview with the plainclothes detective who was near the scene when the shooting happened was also shown during the press conference Tuesday. He said Simmons — who he hadn’t yet recognized — was ahead of him and to the left before Simmons came across Lynch. The detective said he saw Lynch “semi-crouched” near the bushes with the firearm, then raise the gun up.
The detective already had his own weapon drawn at the time. He said he raised his gun when he saw Lynch’s firearm. The rest happened quickly, he said. When Simmons discharged his gun, he also stepped in front of the detective, meaning the detective was unable to safely shoot his own weapon.
Stolle declined multiple times to give information on whether or not the initial police description of Lynch “brandishing” a firearm was accurate. He said the grand jury’s report and the evidence presented during Tuesday’s press conference solely focused on whether Simmons believed his life or the lives of others could be in danger.
Stolle added that the intent behind Lynch’s actions was not part of the analysis by the grand jury. The commonwealth’s attorney’s office declined to speculate on what Lynch could have been doing or thinking at the time.
In a news release Tuesday night, the Lynch family said Donovon Lynch’s character was still questioned Tuesday.
“Even at today’s press conference, they continued to impugn the character of my son,” said Wayne Lynch in the release.
The commonwealth’s attorney’s office also commented that showing the amount of body camera footage and bringing in a special grand jury for the investigation was an unusual step, but felt they needed to address several assertations about what happened on the night of the shooting.
Lang showed body camera footage of a man who rendered aid to Lynch after the shooting. The man gave a false identification twice during interactions with police, and at one point ran from an officer when they asked him about the false ID. The man later claimed he had been shot by police in the hand, but Lang said body camera video clearly showed he had not been shot when Lynch was shot, but said he cut his hand later that night.
Lang also addressed a concern that officers hadn’t rendered aid to Lynch after the shooting, which was proved to be false by body camera footage showing at least one officer giving him medical aid after the shooting.
Additionally, Lynch’s body was moved from the original shooting scene to a safer location, but not to where the body of DeShayla Harris was located, which some rumors had alleged. Harris was shot and killed that night in a separate incident, but as of Tuesday, investigators hadn’t charged anyone in connection with her death. The only time Lynch’s body was near Harris’ was when they were being transported to the medical examiner’s office, Lang said.
A friend who was with Lynch that night also had made consistent statements that he was nearby Lynch when the shooting happened. He had said that Lynch’s hands were in his pockets at the time, but Lang argued that couldn’t be true because Lynch was also shot in the thigh. That bullet hit his cell phone that was in his pocket. Lang said a bullet that hit the cell phone would likely have hit Lynch’s hand if it was also in the pocket. However, his hand had no evidence of a gunshot wound.
Following the announcement of the findings, Simmons issued a statement through his attorney.
“I am gratified that the Special Grand Jury confirmed my actions on March 26, 2021 to be entirely justified and am pleased to have my name cleared of any wrongdoing.”Solomon D. Simmons, III
An administrative review is also underway to determine if Simmons was in compliance with department policy during the incident.
Virginia Beach City Council recently, unanimously, voted to establish a police citizen review board with subpoena power that will investigate alleged cases of police misconduct and abuse of authority. On Tuesday, City Manager Patrick Duhaney said as soon as the new Citizen Review Board is operational, it will be tasked with reviewing the Donovon Lynch case.
“The focus now will be to conduct an administrative investigation to determine whether the officer acted in compliance with departmental policy. The administrative review always occurs after the completion of the criminal investigation as to not interfere with the function of the criminal justice system. Like the criminal investigation, the administrative investigation will consider all available information regarding the incident and the conditions in which the officer found himself. We anticipate this process will be concluded no later than end of first quarter 2022. This case will be reviewed by the newly authorized Independent Citizen Review Board once operational.
Officer Simmons remains on administrative assignment while the department completes the internal investigation.”City Manager Patrick Duhaney
The Virginia Beach NAACP president also released a statement Tuesday night.
“The Virginia Beach NAACP Branch is extremely disappointed with the decision of the Special Grand Jury regarding the death of Donovan Lynch on March 26, 2021. The reason given for no charges filed was Officer Solomon Simmons displayed Justifiable Self Defense of Himself and Defense of Others. We can categorically state that Donovan Lynch was not afforded the covering of Virginia’s Justifiable Self Defense Law during that evening.
“… It did not take 120 hours of body cam footage and 40-60 interviews of those who were in the parking lot area that night and the death of Donovan Lynch for Virginia Beach African-American citizens to know that the same rules and privileges that others are afforded are not to be asserted or used by African-Americans. Even if our life depends on it. The branch looks forward to results of the Independent Citizen Review Board.”Dr. Karen Hills Pruden, VB NAACP President
The NAACP statement continued, saying “it would not be a stretch to assume Mr. Lynch reasonably believed he was in imminent danger” that evening at the Oceanfront. They said he was in imminent danger of shot, as evidenced by Simmons being able to shoot him during the incident.
The statement added that it “would have been reasonable for Mr. Lynch to attempt to protect himself with his legally registered gun with the same amount of force that he believed he was threatened by.”
Additionally, the Lynch family also filed a $50 million lawsuit against Simmons, alleging wrongful death.
The special grand jury in its report also recommended launching an investigation of possible perjury by attorney Jeff Reichert, who has represented the Lynch family.
Another recommendation from the grand jury was to test police officers for alcohol and drugs immediately after an officer-involved shooting. However, the grand jury said it couldn’t find any facts, findings, credible testimony or evidence that indicated Simmons had been drinking while on duty.
A third recommendation asked that police adjust protocols so body cameras are automatically activated while on duty. The police department in May announced that body cameras must now start recording when officer marks “en route” to a call.
The grand jury also urged continued investigation into the shootings on March 26 at the Oceanfront, including the death of Harris. Police ask that anyone with information on Harris’ death contact the Virginia Beach Police Department.
Editor’s note, March 28, 2022: Since the original reporting of this story, Virginia Beach Police Chief Paul Neudigate has said the information given during a meeting March 30, 2021 that nine people were shot and injured and two others were killed at the Oceanfront March 26 was not correct. WAVY confirmed with the chief that eight people were injured and two were killed.