A jury on Thursday found an Uber driver not guilty of murder in the fatal shooting of a passenger he said attacked him while driving on a freeway in Denver.
Jurors sided with Michael Hancock, 31, who argued that he was defending himself against passenger Hyun (Huhn) Kim.
About four hours after he was acquitted, Hancock was released from jail after spending more than a year behind bars. His waiting family’s shouts of joy echoed in the lobby. As soon as he got outside, Hancock ran exuberantly down a sidewalk away from reporters and television cameras.
Hancock testified at trial that the 45-year-old Kim made unwanted sexual advances and attacked him when Hancock threatened to pull over during the June 2018 ride.
Prosecutors said Hancock stopped the car, went to the front passenger side where Kim was sitting, and fired 10 bullets from his semi-automatic handgun. At least five struck Kim.
Hancock, who was not seriously injured, then put a knife in Kim’s hand to get his fingerprints on it, authorities said.
Hancock said he kept the knife under his seat and put it in Kim’s hand to see if he was still alive.
The trial was among a handful of criminal cases in the U.S. involving drivers who work for the ride-sharing company. Prosecutors in Albuquerque, New Mexico, have charged an Uber driver in the shooting death of a passenger during a dispute over vomit in the driver’s vehicle.
In North Carolina, an Uber driver is accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a female passenger.
Kim’s family and the Denver District Attorney’s Office said they were disappointed in the verdict but respected the jury’s decision.
Now that the criminal case is over, a lawyer representing Kim’s family said he planned to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Uber claiming that it is not enforcing its ban on drivers carrying guns.
“If Uber thinks it’s important to have that rule, Uber should enforce that rule,” said Francis Patrick Murphy of Corboy & Demetrio, a Chicago law firm that has filed nearly 20 lawsuits against rideshare companies.
Murphy said if Hancock was not armed, he could have just reached for his phone to call police instead.
Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
After the shooting, Uber removed Hancock’s access to its app and said it was cooperating with investigators.
The fatal Colorado ride began after Hancock picked up Kim at a karaoke bar. Kim’s original destination was 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) away. Surveillance video showed Hancock’s car arriving at that location. But Kim — who was drunk— did not get out of the car.
Uber records showed that by the time the shooting occurred, the car had traveled about 70 miles (113 kilometers) since Kim was picked up.
A defense lawyer said Hancock eventually demanded that Kim enter another address into the Uber app.
Lawyer Johnna Stuart said Kim touched Hancock more than once on the leg and became more aggressive when Hancock challenged him. Kim punched the driver in the face and reached for the steering wheel and ignition, Stuart told jurors in her closing argument.
Hancock tried to jump out of his still-rolling car, but Kim attempted to pull him back by his dreadlocks, prompting Hancock to grab his gun, Stuart said.
Prosecutors said it was possible that Kim did not get out at his original destination because he passed out and Hancock drove around to increase the fare.
The prosecutors also acknowledged there was a fight inside the car, and it was probably started by Kim, possibly after he woke up startled and was upset about being driven around in the car.
Hancock had swelling above his eyebrow after the killing, according to police photographs. Kim had bruises on his right hand, autopsy photos showed. However, prosecutors said Hancock’s injury was not serious enough for him to have reasonably feared for his life.
Deputy District Attorney Brenna Zortman said more than two years of Uber records did not show any cases of Kim displaying sexual interest in other drivers. Uber records for Hancock, who is married and has two children, showed no previous problems, his lawyers countered.
Prosecutors did not offer a motive.
Stuart said Hancock worked as an Uber driver to supplement his modest income from his job at a youth group home and drove at night to avoid missing family time.
She told jurors it did not make sense that he would throw his life away by killing Kim for no reason.