FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A sheriff's deputy told a federal jury Monday that he would still shoot an unarmed 22-year-old black man, given the man's actions in the seconds before he fired.
Palm Beach County Sgt. Adams Lin testified under cross-examination that "the totality of circumstances" led him to believe Dontrell Stephens had drawn a gun on Sept. 13, 2013, and was about to shoot him when he pulled his service weapon and shot Stephens four times, leaving him paralyzed. Lin testified that Stephens started to raise his hands but then put his left hand behind his back. Stephens then thrust a dark object at him that he thought was a handgun, Lin said.
"I would make the same, exact choice again," Lin told the six-woman, two-man jury. "If I saw a dark object coming at me like a gun, I would take the steps necessary to protect myself."
Stephens is suing Lin and the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office, alleging his civil rights were violated. He's seeking more than $5 million to cover medical treatment and future care. The jury must decide whether Lin made an "objectively reasonable mistake" when he shot Stephens.
The case is one of several nationwide that have sparked debate about the shooting of unarmed black males by law enforcement officers. Federal Magistrate Judge Barry S. Seltzer has instructed jurors that they are to consider only the specific circumstances of Stephens' shooting and no other. Lin was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by sheriff's investigators and local prosecutors and was later promoted to sergeant.
Lin, 38 and a 12-year veteran of the sheriff's office, said he stopped Stephens for riding his bicycle into traffic and because he didn't recognize him from the neighborhood.
Video from the patrol car's dashboard camera shows that Stephens has his cellphone in his right hand as he pedals in front of Lin.
Lin told the jury Monday that he might have missed the cellphone because, unlike the video camera, he was turning his head and blinking as he drove. He also said he thought Stephens might drop his bike and run, so he was looking beyond him for obstacles such as cars and fences and for house addresses so he could radio for backup.
As Lin caught up to Stephens, he gave a short siren burst and turned on his lights. Stephens rode into a duplex parking lot. Lin said — and the video confirms — that Stephens looked back, then continued forward about 10 feet before jumping off the bike. Lin said he thought Stephens was about to run, so he jumped from his car to begin chasing him. Instead, Stephens walked between two parked cars toward where Lin had moved. Both were then out of camera range.
Lin said he stayed behind the trunk of the forward car because he didn't want to get caught in a "fatal funnel" with nowhere to duck if Stephens drew a gun.
Lin testified that he told Stephens to show his hands. He said he put his right hand over his stun gun. He said Stephens started to raise his hands, took a small step back with his left foot and then put his left hand behind his back. He said Stephens flashed the hand forward, pointing a dark object at him that looked like a small handgun or perhaps a gun disguised as a cellphone. Lin said he feared for his life as he fired four shots from his .40 caliber service weapon.
The video shows that as the shots were fired, Stephens turned and started to run before falling. His cellphone remained in his right hand. Four seconds had elapsed since Stephens stopped his bike.
Under cross-examination by Stephens' attorney Jack Scarola, Lin denied Stephens' contention he had his gun drawn from the moment they confronted each other between the cars.
That drew sharp questions from Scarola, who challenged Lin to explain how he could have perceived a threat, drawn his weapon and fired all within four seconds if his gun had been holstered.
Lin said he would not have pulled his gun early out of fear that Stephens was about to run because running with a drawn gun can cause an accidental discharge, something he did early in his career. He said he had learned his lesson.