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Suffolk DA probe of events leading to Juston Root’s death complicated by conflict of interest, e-mail shows

A photograph of Justin Root sat on a podium where his family spoke about his death.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

An investigation by the Suffolk district attorney’s office into the events that led to the death of Juston Root, who was fatally shot by police in 2020 after brandishing a fake gun, has been complicated by a conflict of interest that arose from a leadership transition, according to an e-mail obtained by the Globe.

The e-mail, sent in early March from a representative of the district attorney’s office to a relative of Root, stated in part, “I am 90% finished with the report, but we have run into an issue.”

“As you know, my office just recently changed administrations, as former DA [Rachael] Rollins was recently sworn in as the new United States Attorney for Massachusetts. As part of the transition, we have a new General Counsel, who prior to coming aboard, worked as counsel for the City of Boston and therefore had dealings with the officers involved in the incident,” the representative wrote. “As a result, our office now has a conflict of interest and must bow out of the case.”

The office planned to “identify another agency or individual who can take over the investigation,” according to the e-mail.

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Two months after that e-mail, and more than two years after Root’s death, his sister, Jennifer Root Bannon, said she is still waiting for a completed report from Suffolk prosecutors into the circumstances that led to the death of her brother, who had a history of mental illness. In 2020, Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey found that officers were justified in the fatal shooting, which occurred after Root led police on a wild chase from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston into Brookline.

On Monday, Root Bannon expressed frustration with the pace of the investigation, saying her family has tried to respect the investigatory process but can’t understand how a full accounting has yet to be made.

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“How is it possible?” she asked in a statement. “There has been much talk about police accountability and transparency, yet where is the action? Where are our public officials?”

James Borghesani, a spokesman for the Suffolk DA’s office, said that investigators are “moving forward on all police-involved shooting cases” that District Attorney Kevin Hayden inherited when he took office in January.

“The Juston Root case requires a referral due to a conflict of interest within the office and that referral is in process,” he said. “We will have no further comment until the referral and subsequent review are completed.”

A wrongful death suit that Bannon Root filed against the city of Boston, a handful of Boston police officers, and a state trooper, is still ongoing, according to court filings. The Root family has also called for an independent investigation into Root’s death.

At the Suffolk district attorney’s office, the conflict of interest was the result of a sequence of events. In January, Rollins became the US attorney for Massachusetts and was replaced as Suffolk district attorney by Hayden, who previously worked in the office as an assistant district attorney and for years served as the chairman of the state’s Sex Offender Registry Board.

In mid-January, Erika P. Reis was named as the office’s new general counsel after previously working in the city of Boston’s law department. That has apparently thrown a wrench into the office’s investigation.

Probing Root’s death was already complicated, as the events leading to his death involved at least four law enforcement agencies and two different district attorney jurisdictions. Weeks after Root’s death, Rollins cautioned that her office’s investigation could take months.

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According to authorities, the chaos that ended in Root’s death began shortly after 9 a.m. on Feb. 7, 2020, in Boston, which is in Suffolk County, outside Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where Root brandished a fake gun at an officer. Root’s sister on Monday described the item as a “clear, plastic paintball gun.”

Officers opened fire, striking Root as well as a valet in the area, but Root was able to escape to his car and drive away, according to Morrissey’s report.

Root, a 41-year-old Mattapan resident, led police on a four-mile chase across the city that ended when his vehicle crashed near a Brookline shopping center, which is in Norfolk County. In footage from a street camera, Root’s vehicle can be seen flying through an intersection after making contact with another vehicle. Ultimately, he was killed in a hail of police gunfire in Brookline.

Body camera footage showed the frazzled aftermath of the fatal shooting, as countless officers descended on the area and multiple officers quickly began to refer to the incident as “suicide by cop.”

A BB gun that Root was known to carry in a shoulder holster was reportedly found in mulch under his body, according to the wrongful death lawsuit, while a clear paintball gun was discovered in Root’s crashed vehicle.

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In his report, Morrissey wrote that the “use of force by police in Brookline was objectively reasonable.”

Hayden is running for a full term as Suffolk district attorney. His opponent is Ricardo Arroyo, a Boston city councilor. Arroyo did not respond to requests for comment.




Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.