My son was killed by a park ranger. Qualified immunity means I may never see justice.

·6 min read

On March 21, 2020, my son Charles Lorentz – “Gage,” as we called him – was driving back home to Colorado after completing a job in Texas. Sunday morning, when my son’s best friend alerted me that no one had seen or heard from my son, I knew something was terribly wrong. We began calling police and sheriff departments along the route he generally travelled home in an attempt to locate him. Like any mother, my imagination ran wild with worry. But every worst case scenario I feared paled in comparison with what I eventually found out happened to Gage that night.

After making calls for over an hour, a sheriff’s department in New Mexico gave me the horrifying details of why Gage had not come home. This detective informed me that there had been an “incident,” as he described it. My son had been shot by a national park ranger, twice. He was dead. Despite the fact that Gage had identification in his truck, no one had bothered to let us know.

Utter lack of transparency and justice

It has taken months to piece together what happened during the traffic stop that led to my son’s killing. Our family had to hire an attorney to make public records requests to piece together the barest outline of what happened. This is what we found: My son had been driving through Carlsbad Caverns National Park when he was pulled over for a minor traffic stop. 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.

Kimberly Beck and her son, Charles "Gage" Lorentz, in 2015 in Grand Junction, Colo.
Kimberly Beck and her son, Charles "Gage" Lorentz, in 2015 in Grand Junction, Colo.

My family thought we would have more answers when, months later, we obtained footage from the body camera the ranger was wearing. As horrifying as it was to watch, it was more traumatic to discover that right at the moment when things escalated, the video went blank for 26 seconds. Whatever happened during those 26 seconds appears to have been edited out. What I did see was the ranger pressing his gun into the chest of my son, who was lying on the ground already incapacitated by a gunshot to his upper right thigh. The autopsy confirms he was shot in the chest at point blank range.

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.

On its website, the Department of Justice lays out its mission prominently. This mission reads, in part, “to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.”

You would be hard pressed to find an American who didn’t know it was a crime to shoot and kill a wounded, unarmed man lying on the ground. If our son’s killer were a civilian, he would most certainly be criminally prosecuted. But because our son’s killer is a federal law enforcement officer – one who drank a cup of coffee as my son lay dying on a gravel road – the district attorney declined to press criminal charges.

Our only other chance at justice is to bring a civil rights case against the ranger who killed Gage. But here again we are faced with the Department of Justice’s hypocrisy in ensuring “fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.” In March, the government’s attorneys raised qualified immunity to shield the ranger who killed my son, absolving him of any responsibility.

Qualified immunity is a shield and sword wielded to bar a civil suit from proceeding unless there is a previously published case with facts so similar that an officer would have known his actions were “unconstitutional.” A legal precedent in a civil case should not be necessary to know that the shooting of a wounded, unarmed man lying on the ground ought to be brought to a court of law and adjudicated. A family should be entitled to seek justice in the courts and find out the truth of the circumstances that led to their child’s death, regardless of who caused that death.

Current efforts are insufficient

Attorney General Merrick Garland and President Joe Biden are publicly advocating for police reform at state and local levels in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet Garland and Biden have the direct ability to prevent brutality in their own backyard by ending qualified immunity for government actors like park rangers, but they have not.

The Editorial Board: Fix qualified immunity travesty that lets police off the hook after violating civil rights

A protest on policing reform in Pittsburgh in 2020.
A protest on policing reform in Pittsburgh in 2020.

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. 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. The federal government should require that Interior Department bodycam equipment be up to date and functioning, and configured such that it is not possible to edit recorded footage. Editing bodycam footage should be a punishable crime.

The use of excessive force by police departments and federal officers must also be addressed. We cannot wait for one more unnecessary death, the death of another mother’s child. A large part of the reform police conversation centers around training, yet the government has not instituted this sort of training for park rangers who are armed and under their direct purview. The current culture of law enforcement, wherein an officer feels justified in resorting to the use of deadly force, needs to change.

Bidwell, Jaicomo and Sibill: Leaked legislation shows hope for reforming qualified immunity

Finally, qualified immunity allows those who do wrong to hide from justice and escape consequences for their actions. A police system that does not hold people accountable means there is little to deter one from doing wrong. Our family calls on the president and attorney general to end qualified immunity and take action to reform training of federal officers to include not only de-escalation of conflict – but how to prevent escalation.

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.

Kimberly Beck is the mother of Charles Lorentz, who was shot by a park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns in March 2020.

This column is part of a series by the USA TODAY Opinion team examining the issue of qualified immunity. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together. The opinions offered are those of the USA TODAY Editorial Board. Stand Together does not provide editorial input.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Qualified immunity: Son killed by park ranger, mom denied justice.

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