FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A sheriff's deputy justifiably shot and paralyzed an unarmed black man because the man's actions made the deputy believe he was drawing a gun and was about to shoot him, a police training expert told a federal court jury Tuesday.
Emanuel Kapelsohn said Palm Beach County Sgt. Adams Lin could not wait to closely inspect and confirm the small dark object that Lin says 22-year-old Dontrell Stephens pulled from behind his back was a gun because he could have been killed. Video from the dashboard camera in Lin's patrol car shows that Stephens had his cellphone in his right hand.
"If you wait for a muzzle flash, that might be the last thing you see," said Kapelsohn, whose company trains police firearms instructors. His firm received over $30,000 from the county for his work reviewing the case and for testifying.
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 among 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 must consider only the specific circumstances of Stephens' shooting and no other. Lin, an Asian-American, 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, testified earlier that he stopped Stephens for riding his bicycle into traffic and because he didn't recognize him from the neighborhood.
Under questioning by Lin attorney Richard A. Giuffreda, Kapelsohn said many small handguns look like cellphones. He pointed to a photograph showing a .25-caliber gun called a "Baby Browning" laid next to a cellphone. He said there have been other cases where law enforcement officers have confused wallets, keys and calendar books for guns.
Kapelshohn's testimony aimed to counter that given by former Tallahassee police chief Melvin L. Tucker, who testified last week for Stephens. He said Lin had no legitimate reason to open fire and that he had put himself in danger by violating several law enforcement procedures.
During cross-examination by Stephens attorney Jack Scarola, Kapelsohn said Lin's incorrect belief that the dark object was in Stephens' left hand isn't uncommon. He said officers and others in perceived life-and-death circumstances can invert which hand is being used because of stress. He also said there doesn't have to be a logical reason for Stephens to put his cellphone behind his back and flash it forward like a weapon. He recounted a case where a man was fatally shot after he thrust a silver beer can at an officer during a traffic stop because he thought it would be funny. The officer, thinking it was a gun, fired.
"Some people in this world do things that are foolish," Kapelsohn said.
Closing arguments are expected Wednesday.