It has been nearly four months since 13-year-old Sinzae Reed was fatally shot in an Ohio apartment complex by his neighbor Krieg Butler, a 36-year-old white man. The boy’s death was declared a homicide after a county coroner’s autopsy found he had been shot twice, including a fatal wound to the chest.
But Butler remains free, released from a murder charge after he told police that he acted in self-defense. Police records don’t explain why Butler fired, and there’s no indication that Sinzae had a weapon.
“I’m very frustrated because I know if it was the other way around, if it was a Black man and my child was white, the Black man would be in jail, and my son would have justice,” Sinzae’s mother, Megan Reed, told ABC News last month. “I need justice for my son.”
Prosecutors have been largely mute on the case, saying they’re awaiting additional evidence and cannot comment on whether a grand jury will be called. They have repeatedly rebuffed questions about why Butler was released without court-ordered monitoring.
At the Wedgewood Village Apartments in Columbus, Ohio, there’s little evidence of the fatal shooting that sparked protests and calls for justice. There are no makeshift memorials to Sinzae. Swing sets sit empty amid the low-rise apartment buildings. Signs promoting “Family Night” and a year-end get-together hang ignored. There are children here, but their voices are only heard from inside apartments where televisions blare.
There’s a desensitization to tragic violence in this community, where residents say they’re used to officials’ inaction. Police are present in the neighborhood, but they haven’t been effective in diffusing crime and violence, residents said.
So neighbors largely keep to themselves, rarely mingling with people outside their building.
“I don’t bring my grandkids to over here because the neighborhood is so bad. At nighttime, all you hear is gunshots and stuff,” said Patricia Stepp, 45. “They can’t go out and meet people, because you never know who you’re running into.”
Sinzae’s family and community activists continue to call for the rearrest of Butler. The longer the investigation goes, more questions and rumors have circulated than answers.
To dispel the myths and break down the facts, Capital B has reviewed court and police records related to the case and spoke to three legal and law enforcement experts with a collective 50 years of experience. Here’s everything we know about the tragic killing of Sinzae Reed:
What do we know about how Sinzae died?
Not much. Megan Reed has said her son woke up on Wednesday, Oct. 12, and told her that he wasn’t feeling well. Soon after, he went outside.
According to court documents, a witness told police that they saw Butler drive up in his red truck at 5:46 p.m., get out, start shooting and flee the scene. Sinzae was shot twice. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died less than an hour later.
One bullet lodged in the 13-year-old’s right palm, and the fatal shot went through the right side of his chest, exiting out of his back. The exit wound might have given the appearance that Sinzae was shot in the back, as at least one eyewitness alleged.
Butler was arrested the next day on murder charges with a $1 million bond, but Franklin County prosecutors dismissed that charge on Oct. 20.
Why did Franklin County prosecutors decide to dismiss the murder charge?
Butler told investigators that he acted in self-defense when he fired his weapon, according to police, which could grant him additional protection under Ohio’s new “stand your ground” law.
Enacted in 2021, the law removes a person’s duty to retreat when feeling under threat before they resort to force. This effectively makes it easier to claim self-defense in court, shifting the burden of proof to prosecutors. In other words, it’s up to the state to prove that the surviving party did not have a reasonable feeling of imminent danger.
This changes how prosecutors prepare evidence in court.
“Just being put on notice [that self-defense is at play], the state now has the burden for their cases to prove that it was not,” said civil rights attorney Fanon Rucker, who previously served as a judge in the Hamilton County Municipal Court in Ohio.
Prosecutors have not said whether Ohio’s stand your ground law is playing into decisions about Butler’s case. But the possible influence of the law has led to comparisons between Sinzae’s death and the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida. George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges in that case after claiming he shot 17-year-old Trayvon in self-defense. Though Zimmerman’s acquittal didn’t depend on Florida’s stand your ground law, the case prompted Republican state lawmakers to adopt similar laws across the country. Ohio was the 36th state to implement such a statute.
“What we may see, ultimately, in a failure to charge or in a not guilty — if it goes to that point — is a reflection of that change in the law in Ohio, as we have seen in other places around the country who also have stand your ground laws,” Rucker said.
Dismissing the murder charge against Butler does not prevent prosecutors from arresting him again on murder charges. With the high burden of proof in a self-defense case, prosecutors requested further evidence from investigators to arm themselves when they present the evidence to the grand jurors.
Why does this case have to go to a grand jury?
Every state handles felony cases differently. In some, a judge assesses during preliminary hearings whether there’s enough evidence to move a case to felony court. In Ohio, the case can instead be presented to a grand jury, a secret panel of nine randomly selected citizens, said LaToya Bell, deputy director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center.
Prosecutors present the grand jury with the collected evidence. In order to indict, at least seven of the nine jurors must agree that the evidence shows the defendant probably committed a crime, according to the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association. This doesn’t mean the person is guilty — it simply allows the case to proceed to trial.
“Understand that when a person is charged with a felony, it is not official, at least in Ohio, until the grand jury decides that it’s a charge,” Rucker said.
The grand jury considers various state laws in deciding what charges to include in the indictment, if any. They can include even more charges than the prosecutor originally suggested, Rucker said. Prosecutors can present the evidence to a grand jury an unlimited amount of times until probable cause is determined.
“Because they’re secret proceedings,” Rucker said, “you never know when they’re actually being presented.”
Why is it taking so long for prosecutors to collect the necessary evidence to present to the grand jury?
Prosecutors have not specified what evidence they need to move the case forward, but autopsy and ballistics reports can be key to a possible prosecution. Those pieces of evidence can take months to complete, possibly delaying any action against Butler.
“We do understand they want to field a strong case. You still want a strong case even with an obvious case, so you don’t want to have any missing pieces or any loopholes or anything that can be challenged later in court,” said Brenda Goss Andrews, president of the National Organization Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).
The autopsy report was completed on Jan. 6 and ruled Sinzae’s death a homicide. Following the release of the coroner’s report, Franklin County prosecutors said they’re waiting for additional, unspecified evidence from the investigation.
“In Ohio, the Grand Jury process is by rule a secret proceeding and therefore we are not able to provide explanations at every step,” a spokesperson for prosecutors said in an email to Capital B. “We will however strive to be as transparent as appropriate under our legal construct.”
Because prosecutors and police do not have to make public details about their investigation, there could be other, unknown factors at play that are delaying or prohibiting criminal charges in Sinzae’s death, Rucker said.
“It’s hard to know what’s going on behind the scenes,” he said. State law says that prosecutors “have the discretion not to release certain information.”
But, Rucker added, “At some point somebody’s gonna have to answer why there is no movement.”
Since Sinzae’s death has been ruled a homicide, shouldn’t that be enough to arrest Butler again?
A homicide ruling simply means Sinzae’s death was caused by another person, not that a crime has been committed. In some cases, homicides are justifiable, such as in cases of self-defense. Further forensic evidence and witness accounts are needed to determine whether Sinzae’s killing was a criminal act.
The autopsy report shows Sinzae was shot in his hand and chest, and prosecutors may be waiting for the ballistics report to show the trajectory of the bullets, Bell said.
“I can’t tell from the autopsy report whether his hands were downward or were they up. And so if they’re up, that’s going to be problematic” for Butler’s defense, she said. “If it will show that his hands are up, they’re gonna want a very quick trial because that does not indicate that he posed any threat.”
Prosecutors also may be preparing for responses from the community and elected officials, Bell said.
“Maybe it wasn’t self-defense, and they know that that could cause more problems in the community because of the frustration and the outrage,” she said. “People act on outrage, and they’re prepared for that.”
What do we know about Butler’s defense?
Beyond stating that he fired a gun in self-defense, any statements Butler made to investigators have not been made public.
At the time of the shooting, Butler was on parole for a 2019 misdemeanor domestic violence conviction, to which he pleaded guilty and served a month in jail. Under federal law, people convicted of domestic violence are not allowed to have a firearm, though Ohio does not prohibit possession in misdemeanor cases.
Prosecutors could have charged Butler with a weapons violation, Bell said, “and why they didn’t, I don’t know.”
“It seems unfair and may raise some concerns, but it does not mean that charges cannot subsequently be brought for any of them,” she said. “The charges, the murder, there’s no statute of limitations on that.”
When Butler was arrested for Sinzae’s murder in October, he was also charged by prosecutors with a parole violation for a previous domestic violence conviction, but once the murder charge was dismissed, the underlying violation was dropped as well.
A charge of criminal possession of a weapon could be added if the case is taken to a grand jury.
Butler receiving carte blanche to leave police custody after admitting to fatally shooting someone reflects a national pattern, Bell said.
“In this instance, you can’t ignore the obvious: The defendant is white, the victim is Black. So race, socioeconomics, often factor into it on prior convictions,” she said. “It’s more common now, given that this has just happened in the last 10 years with Trayvon Martin, and so we’re seeing a pattern. But unfortunately, these are just the incidents that people have heard about.”
Chantal Brown in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.