Lawyers for Dontrell Stephens, shot by PBSO, see charges as ‘vindictive’

Ten days after he was shot and paralyzed by a PBSO deputy in 2013, prosecutors charged Dontrell Stephens with cocaine possession and failing to obey a police officer.

But since then, the actions of police and prosecutors have led Stephens’ lawyers to believe that the charges are being used to retaliate against him.

“I absolutely believe this is a vindictive prosecution, that they’re only doing this … to justify what the officer did,” said Stephens’ criminal defense lawyer, Ian Goldstein. “It’s a disturbing case. This is probably the worst I’ve ever seen.”

READ: Palm Beach Post-WPTV Joint Investigation into Police Shootings in Palm Beach County

Dontrell Stephens is partly paralyzed after being shot by a Palm Beach County Sheriff's deputy.
Dontrell Stephens is partly paralyzed after being shot by a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy.

Stephens was shot Sept. 13, four seconds after he was stopped by Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputy Adams Lin. (Lin has since been promoted to sergeant.) Lin said Stephens disobeyed multiple orders to raise his hands, prompting him to shoot.

Stephens, who was immediately paralyzed by the gunfire, had a cell phone in his hand.

Police quickly found reasons to suspect Stephens of drug possession, according to records and a deposition of the case’s lead detective.

Paramedics at the scene cut off his clothes before taking him to St. Mary’s Medical Center. When PBSO investigators looked beneath the clothing, they found a vial of crack cocaine on the ground.

At St. Mary’s, a nurse found a small baggie of marijuana on the floor of the emergency room and handed it to a deputy.

Prosecutors decided to charge Stephens with possession of the cocaine vial, a third-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to five years in prison.

But according to Det. Kenny Smith, the lead detective in the case, there was no real evidence, beyond circumstance, that the cocaine belonged to Stephens.

“It was underneath his clothing at the scene,” Smith said in a deposition for Stephens’ civil lawsuit last year. “So there’s a possibility that it’s not his.”

To try to bolster the department’s case against Stephens, Smith did something unusual: he sent the vial to PBSO’s lab to see if it contained Stephens’ DNA.

Smith told Stephens’ lawyers that it was the first time in his 14 years at PBSO that he’d sent a vial to the lab to test for DNA. DNA tests are expensive and time-consuming, with results often taking months.

According to Stephens’ lawyers, PBSO’s lab refused to test the vial since the charge was so minor. Instead, the lab sent it to a third party for testing.

It came back negative for Stephens’ DNA, and prosecutors dropped the charge.

But they didn’t give up on pinning a drug charge on Stephens. At that point, more than a year after the incident, the State Attorney’s Office decided to add a charge of marijuana possession, a misdemeanor.

But that charge seems even more flimsy.

Smith said in last year’s deposition that he didn’t try to charge Stephens with marijuana possession because he didn’t believe there was probable cause indicating it belonged to Stephens. He didn’t even bother sending it for DNA testing since a St. Mary’s nurse handed it over to a deputy.

Goldstein said the marijuana possession charge was absurd, especially since Stephens’ clothes had been cut off him at the scene, making it difficult for him to hide marijuana until he got to the hospital.

Stephens has pleaded not guilty to all charges and will not accept a plea deal, Goldstein said.

“He did not do anything wrong,” Goldstein said.

A request for comment from the State Attorney’s Office was not returned Thursday.

Goldstein and Jack Scarola, Stephens’ attorney in his federal civil case, believe the office’s aggressive prosecution is a sign that the case is personal for police and prosecutors.

“Those circumstances clearly reflect retaliatory action by the sheriff’s office against Dontrell,” Scarola said.

 

Another day, another Florida prison guard headed to jail

Columbia CI
Columbia CI

Another day, another prison guard bust.

Make that two guards.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) reports that Columbia Correctional prison Sgt. Christopher Michael Jernigan and guard Donald Dwight Sims, Jr. have been charged with aggravated battery on an inmate and, in Jernigan’s case, tampering with evidence.

According to the FDLE, this is how it played out:

The Columbia Correctional Institution guards were taking Shurick Lewis, 41, to solitary confinement this past February when they ordered other inmates to leave the area. Lewis was then taken to a place without video surveillance and assaulted.

According to FDLE, after the beating, Jernigan told other inmates to clean up the blood, put a new mattress on the bunk and throw away bloody clothes.

Lewis, bleeding from his nose and mouth and with a swollen eye, was seen by a prison nurse. It’s not known what care he got, but the nurse sent him back to his cell – where he lost consciousness.

Several hours later, he was found by officers on the next shift and taken to Shands Hospital, where he was treated for a broken nose and several facial fractures.

The two guards offered vastly different stories: Sims said Lewis fell off his bunk. Jernigan said he used force after the inmate lunged at him.

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones

Jernigan turned himself in to the Columbia County Jail yesterday. Sims was arrested Monday night.

All this comes within weeks of the arrest of two prison guards and one ex-guard — all reputed members of the Ku Klux Klan — for conspiring to kill a former inmate.

That doesn’t exactly qualify as the start of a clean sweep, but it does give some credence to  Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones’s written comments about Jernigan and Sims: “The Florida Department of Corrections has absolutely no tolerance for the behavior and actions taken by these individuals.”

 

Caught on tape: police shootings through the years

The news yesterday that a South Carolina deputy will face murder charges for shooting and killing an unarmed, fleeing man made some people wonder: What if it hadn’t been caught on tape?

The vast majority of shootings aren’t recorded, obviously. But since 2006, multiple officers have faced charges after their shootings were recorded by witnesses or dashboard cameras. Some of those cases are below. Other shootings caught on tape illustrate how quickly a situation can go from mundane to deadly, even if the officer doesn’t intend to shoot.

WARNING: These videos are graphic.

Airman shot by California deputy (2006)

Elio Carrion was an Air Force airman home from Iraq and riding in the passenger’s seat of a friend’s car that led police on a high-speed chase in 2009. The driver was pulled over by San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputy Ivory Webb, who had Carrion on the ground at gunpoint. The video showed Webb first telling Carrion to stay on the ground, then telling Carrion to get up. Carrion replied, “I’m going to get up,” but when he started to get up, Webb shot him three times.

Webb was charged with attempted voluntary manslaughter and assault with a firearm, but a jury acquitted him. The county settled a lawsuit by Carrion for $1.5 million.

BART police shooting of Oscar Grant (2009)

Officers with the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department were dispatched to a call of a fight on one of the BART trains. While detaining and handcuffing Oscar Grant, officer Johannes Mehserle stood up, allegedly to shock him with a Taser. But he pulled out his handgun instead and fired once, killing Grant.

A jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Ohio officer shoots unarmed motorcyclist (2009)

Michael McCloskey, Jr., was unarmed when Ottawa Hills, Ohio officer Thomas White pulled him over. While McCloskey was sitting calmly on his motorcycle (at the 3:30 mark in the video), White shot him in the back, leaving him paralyzed. White said he thought McCloskey was going for a gun.

The officer was convicted of felonious assault with a gun, but the conviction was overturned last year because of improper jury instructions.

South Carolina deputy shoots man reaching for his license (2014)

This was one of two high-profile shootings in South Carolina captured on video last year. Trooper Sean Groubert stopped Levar Jones in a gas station lot because the man wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Groubert asked Jones for his ID, and Jones patted himself and reached into his car to get it. But Groubert thought Jones was reaching for a gun and shot him.

Groubert was arrested and charged with assault and battery. He’s awaiting trial.

Officers shoot BB-gun wielding teen based on bad 911 call (2014)

John Crawford III, 22, was shopping at an Ohio Walmart and carrying a toy he’d taken off the store shelf: a BB gun that looked like a rifle. A shopper called 911 on him, saying Crawford was waving a gun around and pointing it at people. Store surveillance captured Crawford on the phone, BB gun at his side, when police arrived. Beavercreek police officers, based on the faulty information in the 911 call, shot him almost immediately.

The caller later backtracked from his statements to 911 dispatchers, saying Crawford wasn’t a threat.

Body camera captures Dallas police shooting mentally ill man wielding a screwdriver (2014)

Last year’s fatal shooting of a mentally ill man by a Dallas police officer was one of the first high-profile shootings to be captured on an officer’s body camera. Jason Harrison’s mom had called police for help hospitalizing her mentally ill son, Jason Harrison, 38. When two officers arrived, Harrison was holding a screwdriver and apparently lunged at the officers, prompting both officers to shoot and kill him.

Deputy sobs after shooting 70-year-old man (2014)

This shooting in York County, S.C., shows how officers can easily – and understandably –  perceive a harmless object to be a weapon, and how officers have trouble dealing with those decisions.

Deputy Terrance Knox pulled over 70-year-old Vietnam veteran Bobby Canipe for expired tags. Canipe, who apparently couldn’t hear the deputy yelling for his attention, reached into the truck and pulled out a long object, which Knox believed to be a rifle or shotgun. Knox yelled and fired multiple times, hitting Canipe in the hip. When he ran up to the wounded man, Knox realized the he had pulled out a cane, not a gun.

Later, at the 4:30 mark in the video, you can hear Knox sobbing and a fellow deputy consoling him.

 

The fishing pole, the snitch, the fake murder & the KKK guards

Thomas Newcomb
Thomas Newcomb

Reputed Ku Klux Klan Grand Cyclops Charles Thomas Newcomb had two vials of insulin, eight rounds of 9MM ammo wiped clean of prints, a fishing pole and a plan.

Talks recorded by an FBI informant outline why Newcomb, an ex-Florida prison guard, was arrested Thursday and charged with conspiring to murder a former inmate.

Also arrested were two other Florida state prison guards identified as KKK members: David Elliot Moran and Thomas Jordan Driver.

It was Driver who fought with the inmate and who was bitten by him.
He had the grudge.

Thomas Driver
Thomas Driver

Arrest affidavits released late Thursday, though, indicate that it was Newcomb who had the plan.

In Palatka, where the ex-inmate lived, Newcomb didn’t rule out going in “with guns blazing,” according to the informant.

But he had a quieter option.

“I see that fishing pole like he’s been fishing, and give him a couple of (insulin) shots, and sit there and wait on him, then we can kind of lay him so he’s tippled over into the water. And he can breathe in just a little bit of that water,” Newcomb is quoted as saying in a transcribed recording.

“If we go down the road, and that son of a gun is walking by himself and there’s nobody else around, it ain’t going to take nothing for us to just stop the car and put him in this car and take him somewhere.”

David Moran
David Moran

It might have gone down just that way. But the informant got to the FBI, the FBI got to the targeted victim and together they staged a gory murder scene. The informant took cell phone pictures of the murder to Newcomb, Moran and Driver.

In transcripts of recordings with the men, the informant asks “Is this what ya’ll wanted?”

“Yeah!” responds one. “Hell yeah!”

The FBI arrested all three Thursday morning. They face 30 years in state prison.

Moran and Driver are being fired, said a Florida Department of Corrections spokesman.

To read the source affidavit used here: NEWCOMB – AFFIDAVIT AW_Redacted

Update: DOC chief fires two prison guards arrested for plotting to kill inmate

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones

Updated at 2:08 p.m.
Florida Department of Corrections chief Julie Jones issued this statement following today’s arrest of two current prison guards and one former guard, all KKK members, with plotting to kill an African-American inmate:
“We are moving swiftly to terminate the employees arrested today and working closely with Office of the Attorney General to assist in their prosecution. Our Department has zero tolerance for racism or prejudice of any kind. The actions of these individuals are unacceptable and do not, in any way, represent the thousands of good, hardworking and honorable correctional officers employed at the Department of Corrections.”
The former officer charged in the plot, Charles Thomas Newcomb, was hired in 2012 but dismissed the following year “for failure to meet correctional officer’s minimum training requirements” according to a FDOC spokesman.

Original post: Three current and former Florida prison guards – all members of the Ku Klux Klan – were arrested today and charged with conspiring to kill an African American inmate when he is released from state prison.
Charles Thomas Newcomb, 42, is a former state prison guard; as of this morning, Thomas Jordan Driver, 25, and David Elliot Moran, 47, were still pulling paychecks from the Florida Department of Corrections.
All are members of the Traditional American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
The name of the inmate has not been released. However, Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a prepared statement that the three men plotted the murder as retaliation for a fight between the prisoner and Driver.
The list of agencies involved is a long one: Bondi’s Office of Statewide Prosecution and the Federal Bureau of Investigation made the arrest, but Homeland Security, the Florida Department of Corrections Office of Inspector General, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Highway Patrol, the Florida Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office assisted.
The mens’ trial will take place in Columbia County.