BOULDER, Colo. – Dean Schiller had just left a Colorado supermarket after shopping last year when he heard gunshots and saw three people lying face down. The independent, part-time journalist, began livestreaming on his YouTube channel, before officers arrived, and later refused dozens of police orders to move away.
He would later learn that a friend who worked at the store was one of the 10 people killed inside the King Soopers store in the college town of Boulder. The suspect, Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, 23, is accused of killing customers, workers and a police officer who rushed into the store to try to stop the March 22, 2021, attack.
On Wednesday, jurors acquitted Schiller of obstructing police, a misdemeanor, after Schiller's lawyers argued that being a temporary distraction does not equate to keeping police from doing their job.
In closing arguments, defense attorney Tiffany Drahota told jurors the case was not about being polite to the police, or about the courage shown by police that day or honoring the lives of those lost in the shooting.
“You can mourn the victims of the King Soopers shooting and still find Dean Schiller not guilty,” she said.
Prosecutors argued Schiller ignored 60 commands to move farther away from the store over 1 1/2 hours, becoming a distraction from police efforts to save lives and secure the crime scene. Deputy District Attorney Myra Gottl said his priority was to keep streaming to gain more viewers on his channel.
“It was a calculated decision to get attention and he liked it,” she said in closing arguments at the trial that had opened Tuesday.
Clips of the video shown in during Schiller's trial showed several officers telling him to move back for his safety and for officers' safety. At one point he does get behind the police tape eventually strung around the store but refuses to cross to the other side of the street. He also curses at some officers and flips them off when he tries to gain access from a different direction.
While Drahota pointed out that Schiller was not arrested, Deputy District Attorney Ryan Day said that a commander had testified that police did not have time to do that and keep him secure while responding to the shooting.
After the verdict, Schiller, who has often recorded police activity in Boulder, said he felt like a weight had been lifted from his chest. He said his prosecution made it hard to fully mourn the loss of his friend, Denny Stong, who worked at the store and who lagged behind him in leaving because he knew so many people there. He said he was responding to a need from the public in livestreaming the shooting response.
“It wasn't that I was creating something. It was real news and I needed to show people as long as they wanted to watch,” said Schiller. He added that his heart has not been into filming as much since losing Stong and being prosecuted.
In a statement, District Attorney Michael Dougherty said that police responded to “an incredibly challenging and difficult crime scene” and said his office prosecutes those who obstruct and interfere with law enforcement’s responses to crises.
Schiller's case is part of a larger judicial reckoning taking place around the United States about how far people can go film police while officers work.
In July, a Denver-based U.S. appeals court that oversees four Western and two Midwestern states became the seventh appeals court to rule that people have a right protected by the First Amendment to film police while they work. In September, a federal judge blocked enforcement of a new Arizona law restricting how the public and journalists can film police.
The prosecution of the man charged in the supermarket shooting has been on hold since December after a judge ruled that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial. Alissa is being treated at a state mental hospital. During a hearing last week, Judge Ingrid Bakke said there was still a substantial probability he could be treated to be made competent in the “foreseeable future," an outlook she first shared in March.