Zachary Helbig, the only Colorado police officer charged in an officer-involved shooting last year, was found not guilty Friday of charges stemming from the fatal shooting of a man who asked to die.
Helbig, a Fort Lupton police officer, was facing one count of manslaughter after shooting and killing 46-year-old Shawn Billinger on Jan. 16, 2019. A Weld County jury deliberated for 3.5 hours before rendering the verdict Friday night.
The officer embraced family members and supporters as he exited the courthouse after the verdict.
During closing arguments, Gary Lozow, Helbig’s defense attorney, said that as Billinger approached Helbig that day, the officer had only 10 seconds to make an immensely difficult decision.
“The truth is, he did what he was trained to do,” Lozow told the jury, pausing silently for 10 seconds to demonstrate his point. “He acted in self-defense. He did what he needed to do to save his life.”
Helbig had no malevolence toward Billinger, Lozow said. He didn’t want the man to die. But when the 6-foot-4 Billinger, high on meth, came at him, the officer didn’t have time to weigh his options and use non-lethal force.
“I don’t know what funeral we’d be at if Helbig did that,” the attorney said.
But Helbig never had to be in that life-or-death situation, Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke argued. The officer had “every opportunity to create time and distance.” Helbig knew backup was coming. He knew Billinger was big, high and potentially armed.
“Why not stop there and assess the situation?” Rourke asked the jury.
Ultimately, the district attorney said, this case came down to a few simple questions: Why did Billinger have to die?
“What do you expect from law enforcement before they take a life?” Rourke said. “That can’t be the standard in this community.”
In a statement, the Billinger family said “Shawn was a man in crisis. He was mentally ill. Shawn did not have to die on January, 16, 2019. Shawn was a dad, grandpa, brother, son and friend. He is missed by all who loved him.”
The courtroom on Friday was packed with Helbig’s family and supporters, most wearing a pink ribbon fastened to their shirts. Helbig, who took the stand earlier in the day, sat silently at the defense table during closing arguments, clad in a grey suit and red tie.
The shooting happened on Jan. 16 after police received a call about a disturbance at a Shell gas station in Fort Lupton. As he interviewed witnesses, Helbig saw Billinger drive away in a gold minivan. The officer followed Billinger into the backyard of a house, where he commanded the man to stop running, according to Helbig’s indictment.
Billinger, who had nothing in his hands, then walked quickly toward Helbig, yelling, “Kill me.” Helbig shot him once in the chest, killing him.
In April, Helbig was indicted by a grand jury and charged with one count of manslaughter.
Of the 67 incidents last year in which Colorado law enforcement killed or injured someone, Helbig was the only one to face charges.