Jury: PBSO, deputy at fault; should pay Dontrell Stephens $23 million

After spending three years wondering why a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy shot him, leaving him paralyzed for life, Dontrell Stephens got an answer Wednesday from a federal jury that he had been longing to hear: You didn’t do anything wrong. Sgt. Adams Lin did.

After 3½ hours of deliberation, a jury of six women and two men agreed Lin violated Stephens’ constitutional rights by intentionally using excessive force when he shot Stephens after stopping him in September 2013 for riding his bicycle erratically in 8 a.m. traffic on Haverhill Road, west of West Palm Beach.

The jury found Lin and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office should pay the 22-year-old West Palm Beach man $23.1 million for the medical care and treatment he will need for the rest of his life.

Stephens, who arrived in the courtroom after the verdict was announced, hugged his lawyers. Crying as one of his brothers wheeled him out of the courthouse, he seemed overwhelmed by the media who greeted him, and he declined comment.

His longtime court-appointed guardian spoke for him. “It means his young black life matters and he didn’t do anything wrong,” said attorney Evett Simmons. “It’s hard to believe you can ride your bike with a cell phone and end up paralyzed for life.”

About 8 p.m., three hours after the verdict, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw’s spokeswoman issued a press release stating, “The jury verdict reached today is both shocking and disappointing.” The statement said the agency and Lin plan to appeal.

Earlier, Lin, who had testified he had mistaken a cell phone Stephens was carrying for a gun when he fired four rounds four seconds after confronting Stephens, declined to comment.

Lawyers representing him and the sheriff’s office also had shaken their heads no when asked for a reaction to the verdict. In recent weeks, the agency has settled two other excessive force lawsuits for a total of about $1 million.

Attorney Jack Scarola, who represents Stephens, said it will be a long time before Stephens — who grew up in poverty, has only an eighth-grade education and lives in a rundown one-bedroom apartment with his three brothers — will see any money.

Both Lin and the sheriff’s office are responsible for paying the jury award to the extent allowed by Florida law. It is doubtful Lin can pay it. And, under the state’s sovereign immunity laws, the sheriff’s office is only required to pay $200,000.

For Stephens to get more, the Florida Legislature would have to approve legislation authorizing a greater amount to be paid. Scarola said that with the Legislature in session, it’s too late this year to file this type of legislation, known as a claims bill

In recent years, the Republican-led Legislature has approved very few claims bills and, in two recent years, one Senate president refused to let any such bills pass.

Scarola said he hopes that won’t block Stephens’ chances.

“We hope the state of Florida pays the debt that needs to be paid,” Scarola said. “His life depends on it. But it’s an open question how he will be cared for while we attempt to collect this debt.”

Living in what relatives described as squalor near Good Samaritan Hospital because he and his brothers can’t afford anything else, Stephens has developed the type of serious bed sores that can claim the life of a paraplegic.

As he did in closing arguments, Scarola said after the verdict that the case wasn’t an attack on law enforcement. Instead, he said, it was about one cop who made an unreasonable and unjustified decision to shoot a man who was armed only with a cell phone.

“This is a tremendous victory for the community as a whole and for good law enforcement in particular,” Scarola said. Given the national attention paid to police shootings of unarmed black men throughout the country, the West Palm Beach lawyer said the verdict takes on added significance as well.

Rather than sweep bad decision-making by police under the rug, Scarola said, “A verdict like this restores confidence in good police officers.”

Scarola began his closing arguments Wednesday with a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Adams Lin’s life matters,” Scarola told jurors. “But the life of a 20-year-old homeless man with an eighth-grade education matters just as much.”

The case against Lin and the sheriff’s office seemed strong from the start. A video-camera on Lin’s dashboard recorded the shooting.

But attorney Summer Barranco, who represents Lin and the sheriff’s office, argued that the recording was misleading. She said it was shot from a different angle than what Lin confronted, and that the audio and video weren’t in sync.

She pointed out that Stephens disappeared from the screen for two seconds. “While he was off the screen he did something to make Sgt. Lin, who has never shot anyone in his life, believe his life was threatened.”

Lin, 38, has worked for the agency since 2004 except for a 10-month stint as a military police officer in Afghanistan. He testified that Stephens reached to his back and drew out a “dark object.” Believing it was a gun, Lin fired.

Lin made a mistake, Barranco said. “He shot Mr. Stephens in a split-second when he reasonably believed he faced a deadly threat and he wanted to go home to his family that night,” she said.

But Stephens testified that Lin had his gun drawn while Stephens had his hands raised. Scarola argued that Lin shot Stephens in the chest and twice in his right arm — and then in the back as Stephens tried to flee.

The final shot, Scarola said, is the one that left Stephens paralyzed.

During closing arguments, Scarola and attorney Daryl Lewis, who also represents Stephens, emphasized that Lin, even after saying he was “shocked” to discover Stephens had been holding a cell phone, rather than a gun, testified that he still didn’t believe he had done anything wrong.

“I did the worst wrong, short of killing him, and I would do it again,” Lewis said, paraphrasing what Lin had said. “Everyone knows he would do it again. Now is the time for a jury to rise up and say ‘no you won’t.’”

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