A white man accused of killing a 13-year-old Black boy in Columbus, Ohio, has roamed free for nearly 90 days after prosecutors dismissed murder charges against him, prompting the boy’s family to demand officials provide an explanation and put the man back behind bars. 

Police say Krieg Allen Butler claimed he fired a gun in self-defense during the Oct. 12 encounter that killed Sinzae Reed, but have given no information on why the 36-year-old man felt threatened. Sinzae’s relatives say he did not have a weapon, a statement that officials have not refuted. Court documents have not detailed the events leading up to the shooting.

Butler was released on Oct. 19, six days after his arrest, without an ankle-monitoring bracelet or other restrictions.

“The fact that this man is able to walk around the city of Columbus as if nothing has happened is ridiculous,” said Columbus-based activist Ramon Obey II. “It’s ridiculous it’s coming to this; that we can’t see any form of justice or even get a reason why they went this route with [Butler].”

Amid public outcry, the Columbus police department released a statement last week saying they’re continuing to investigate the incident and awaiting “key forensic and ballistic evidence.” The completed investigation will be submitted to prosecutors, who can decide whether to submit the case to a grand jury, police said.

Sinzae and Butler were neighbors in the Wedgewood Apartments, where the fatal shooting occurred, but the two were strangers, according to representatives of Sinzae’s family. An eyewitness who knows Butler told police that they saw him exit his red truck with a handgun and fire bullets that struck Sinzae multiple times before Butler fled the scene, according to court records.

Sinzae was pronounced dead less than an hour later. Sinzae’s family, including nine brothers and sisters, held a memorial service for him in October. “Zay,” as he was affectionately called, loved to play video games, hang out with friends, and listen to music, according to an online obituary of his brief life.

Butler was originally charged with murder as well as violating the terms of his parole from a 2019 domestic violence case, to which he pleaded guilty and served 30 days in jail. Federal law prohibits those convicted of domestic violence from possessing a firearm, but Butler was not charged with criminal possession of a weapon.  

The tables turned when the Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office reviewed the police investigation and saw that Butler, who is 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, claimed self-defense. In a statement, Franklin Prosecuting Attorney G. Gary Tyack said, “It is standard practice for almost every felony case filed in [Franklin County] Municipal Court to be dismissed” because the court has limited jurisdiction over those cases, but the prosecutor’s office did not respond to further questions about Butler’s release. 

“This particular case is still under review for possible presentation to the Grand Jury, and unfortunately, I cannot advise you when the case will be presented to the Grand Jury,” Tyack’s statement said.

A representative for the Franklin County Public Defender’s Office, the agency listed as Butler’s representation, said the agency does not comment on its cases.

Walter Madison, an Ohio-based attorney who once represented Tamir Rice’s family, said that there’s not enough public information to speculate on why Butler was released from custody. 

“Prosecutors can say, ‘Look, I can’t pursue this in the interest of justice, in good conscience. I want to dismiss this case,’” Madison said. “That’s their responsibility as prosecutors; they have a sworn, ethical duty to seek justice above conviction.”

But David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, says that it’s “odd” that Butler was released from custody. 

“If the police had probable cause to make an arrest, which it sounds like they did, then it would be an unusual case where someone who was suspected of a criminal homicide to have the charges dismissed,” he said, while noting that prosecutors could have an explanation that hasn’t been publicly released. “I can’t say that the prosecutor is completely off to left field here, but what I can say is that this is unusual.”

Singleton added that Butler’s release raises concerns about racial double standards in the criminal justice system, which give more leniency to some, while Black people remain disproportionately represented in the carceral system.

“When Black people are charged with serious crimes, they tend not to get the benefit of the doubt that they should get in the beginning,” Singleton said. “I can’t say this for sure, but if Butler had been a Black man who killed a white youth, I’d be shocked if he was out.” 

Another stand-your-ground case?

The lack of transparency from prosecutors on Butler’s release has left Sinzae’s family and local activists with little confidence that they’ll receive justice. They say the case echoes the death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in 2012 in a residential complex where Trayvon’s father lived. 

Police initially released Zimmerman, who said he shot Trayvon in self-defense. It was six weeks before Zimmerman was arrested on murder charges. He was ultimately acquitted.

Martin’s murder sparked widespread criticism of Florida’s stand-your-ground law, which allows people to use deadly force in response to a perceived threat of great bodily harm without requiring them to retreat first. Several cities and states adopted stand-your-ground laws after Trayvon’s death — including Ohio last year.

Ohio’s new stand-your-ground law has been a topic of debate in Columbus, with some concerned that it could be misused, giving people who kill a potential ticket to freedom. Since Ohio became the 36th state to implement a stand-your-ground statute, it has been a “headache for prosecutors across the state,” said Singleton, making it a challenge “to hold people accountable who use deadly force when really they shouldn’t.”

Obey, the activist, said he knew the stand-your-ground law was going to negatively affect the Black community.

“We are seeing the repercussions of that almost immediately,” Obey said. “Sinzae had absolutely nothing to do with [Butler] and if that’s the case, what we have is a modern day lynching and [Butler] shot Sinzae just for being there.” 

Dejuan Sharp, a spokesman for Sinzae’s family and founder of Columbus Downtowners, a grassroots organization, believes that the eyewitness accounts of Sinzae’s death refute Butler’s alleged self-defense claims.

“Sinzae was unarmed, and he was basically at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Sharp said, adding, “Krieg Butler is the one who hopped out of his vehicle and shot up the whole neighborhood then hopped back in his car, drove away, and went back to work. If it was self-defense, why didn’t you stay?”

Christina Carrega is a criminal justice reporter at Capital B. Twitter @ChrisCarrega