State Grand Jury Declines to File Criminal Charges in Fatal Shooting of Atiba Lewis by Officer Phillip Nguyen
TRENTON – After thorough deliberations, a state grand jury has voted against filing criminal charges in the case of Atiba Lewis, a 45-year-old resident of Plainsboro, N.J., who was fatally shot by Officer Phillip Nguyen of the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office.
The death of Mr. Lewis was investigated by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA), and in accordance with the Independent Prosecutor Directive of 2019, the findings were presented to a grand jury composed of New Jersey residents. As part of the directive, the OPIA issued standard operating procedures (SOPs) in July 2021 to ensure the impartiality and transparency of these grand jury presentations.
The investigation involved extensive interviews with witnesses, examination of photographs, review of body-worn camera footage, and analysis of autopsy results conducted by the medical examiner. All the evidence, including video recordings of the incident, was presented to the state grand jury. Following the careful assessment of testimonies and evidence, the grand jury concluded its deliberations on Monday, August 21, 2023, and rendered a unanimous decision of “no bill,” indicating that no criminal charges should be brought against Officer Nguyen.
According to the investigation, the shooting took place on February 16, 2022, shortly after 11:30 a.m. The Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office, accompanied by other law enforcement agencies, was executing a civil order for possession to remove Mr. Lewis from an apartment on Ravens Crest Drive in Plainsboro. During the execution of the order, officers discovered firearm paraphernalia in the residence, knowing that Mr. Lewis, as a statutorily prohibited individual, should not possess such weapons. Consequently, a search warrant was obtained from a state Superior Court judge, resulting in the recovery and securement of four firearms from Mr. Lewis’s residence.
Law enforcement officers executed the eviction order and search warrant while Mr. Lewis was not present in the apartment. At around 11:30 a.m., upon Mr. Lewis’s return to the apartment complex, officers endeavored to arrest him for the unlawful possession of firearms. However, Mr. Lewis responded by brandishing a knife and fleeing from the officers. He continually threatened the officers with the knife as they pursued him. Despite the deployment of Tasers in an attempt to disarm him, the Tasers proved ineffective. Mr. Lewis, appearing agitated, advanced towards the officers multiple times. At approximately 11:35 a.m., Officer Nguyen, faced with the imminent threat posed by Mr. Lewis and armed with a knife, discharged his weapon, ultimately resulting in Mr. Lewis’s death.
Following the shooting, officers and emergency medical personnel provided immediate first aid to Mr. Lewis. He was subsequently transported to Princeton Hospital, where he was pronounced deceased at 12:10 p.m.
In accordance with P.L. 2019, c. 1, a law enacted in 2019, the Attorney General’s Office is obliged to conduct investigations into deaths occurring during encounters with law enforcement officers or while the individual is in custody. These investigations must be presented to a grand jury for the purpose of determining whether there is sufficient evidence to bring charges against the involved officer(s). The grand jury receives instruction on potential criminal offenses, including criminal homicide, and is also informed about self-defense and other forms of legal justification as prescribed by statutes.
To ensure an unbiased investigation, a conflicts check was conducted in line with the Independent Prosecutor Directive, revealing no actual or potential conflicts of interest among the individuals assigned to the case. Prior to presentation to the grand jury, the investigation was subjected to a comprehensive review by OPIA Executive Director Thomas Eicher in adherence to the established policies and procedures outlined in the SOPs.
Upon the conclusion of the investigation, OPIA assesses whether any principal involved should be referred to the relevant law enforcement agency for administrative review, in accordance with the AG’s Internal Affairs Policy & Procedures. OPIA closely supervises any resulting review and takes necessary actions to ensure its timely completion while acting upon the findings.
For additional information on the Independent Prosecutor Directive, please visit the Attorney General’s website (link provided). Moreover, details regarding the investigation of fatal police encounters in New Jersey under this directive can be found at the provided link.
As the state grand jury has made its decision, the case of Atiba Lewis’s death concludes without criminal charges against Officer Phillip Nguyen.