'Oh my God feeling.' Trooper speaks about shooting knife-wielding man, worrying about other officers

A Connecticut state trooper who shot a 19-year-old man to death in a stolen car in 2020 testified in his defense Friday that he believed he had to open fire because the man was armed with a knife and made threatening movements toward other officers.

Trooper Brian North, 33, took the stand on the fifth day of his trial in Milford, Connecticut, on a charge of first-degree manslaughter with a firearm. He fatally shot Mubarak Soulemane in West Haven on Jan. 15, 2020, after a high-speed chase, with police radio reports that Soulemane had earlier committed a carjacking and was armed with knife.

North, Trooper Joshua Jackson and a West Haven police officer surrounded the stolen car after it crashed into another vehicle after exiting Interstate 95. The West Haven officer broke the passenger side window, and Jackson fired his Taser at Soulemane, which didn't work.

North, who pleaded not guilty, fired his handgun seven times through the driver's window at close range when he said Soulemane pulled out a knife and turned toward to the other officers. He said he thought the other officers were trying to get into the car and were in danger. The shooting happened less than a minute after police got out of their cruisers and approached the car.

“It’s almost like an oh my God feeling. This is happening, while the West Haven officer I’m thinking is in the window (because) I can't see him," North testified in his first public comments about the shooting. "And I was afraid that he was going to be stabbed in the face or the neck, which obviously can be a fatal injury. …. I felt that I had to act in that moment or the West Haven officer, even potentially Trooper Jackson, could have been killed.”

Under questioning by his lawyer, Frank Riccio II, North said he still thinks about the shooting every day and loses sleep over it. He said it was a difficult experience to live with, given that he became a trooper to try to help people.

“Right after shots were fired, there’s not really any training you can do to mentally prepare yourself for that," he said. "And I remember immediately after that happened, it was just a horrible feeling that comes over you, (because) you train for having that possibility because you know this is a dangerous job. But you never actually think that something like that will ever happened to you.”

State Inspector General Robert Devlin, who investigates all uses of deadly force by police in Connecticut, filed the manslaughter charge against North, alleging the shooting was not justified because neither North nor the other officers at the scene were in imminent danger from Soulemane. He also said officers made no attempt to de-escalate the situation.

In his cross-examination of North, Devlin said officers had the car boxed in, the car's windows were up and Soulemane was sitting in the driver's seat not moving when officers ran up to the car. Officers' body camera video also showed neither officer on the other side of the car appeared to try to enter it.

“In fact, now that you’ve seen all the videos and heard the testimony of those officers, in fact there was no danger to anybody outside the car ... correct?" Devlin asked North.

“Not from what I could see now and after hearing testimony. But what I’m perceiving at the time is that there was danger,” North said.

Devlin said in his questioning that the officers could have tried to talk to Soulemane on their cruiser PA systems instead of rushing to the car and escalating the events.

North acknowledged other actions were possible. But he testified earlier that de-escalation and communication did not appear to be possible at first because Soulemane seemed unconscious initially.

After the passenger-door window was broken, Soulemane became alert and pulled out the knife, a series of events that happened within seconds and forced North to respond, North said.

North also acknowledged that firing his weapon could have seriously injured the officers.

North was the first witness of the defense's case. Devlin rested the state's case on Thursday.

To find North guilty, the six-person jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that he killed Soulemane in “extreme indifference to human life” and his conduct was “reckless,” according to state law. First-degree manslaughter with a firearm carries up to 40 years in prison, with a mandatory minimum of five years behind bars.

Soulemane’s mother, sister and girlfriend were the first people to testify at the trial on Monday. They said he had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and his mental health problems appeared to be worsening in the days before the shooting.

Police said the series of events on Jan. 15, 2020, began when Soulemane displayed the knife at an AT&T store in Norwalk, and he unsuccessfully tried to steal a cellphone.

Police said he then slapped a Lyft driver and drove off in the driver’s car after the driver got out, leading police on a 30-mile (48-kilometer) chase from Norwalk to West Haven with speeds reaching up to 100 mph (161 kph).