Courtesy photo | Ben Crittenden 
Kelly Michael Stephens, shown in this 2007 photo, was shot and killed during an encounter with a Juneau Police Department officer on Dec. 29, 2019.

Courtesy photo | Ben Crittenden Kelly Michael Stephens, shown in this 2007 photo, was shot and killed during an encounter with a Juneau Police Department officer on Dec. 29, 2019.

Family files wrongful death suit against Juneau police, city

They want to view the audio and video from the encounter for their own investigation.

Following an announcement Monday, the family of a man killed in an encounter with a Juneau Police Department officer in December has filed a wrongful death suit against the officer, JPD and the City and Borough of Juneau.

Kelly Michael Stephens, 34, was shot and killed during an encounter with JPD Officer James Esbenshade on Dec. 29, 2019. Esbenshade was cleared of wrongdoing by the Office of Special Prosecutions in March. The OSP is a part of the Alaska Department of Justice, and investigates all officer-involved shootings.

“We don’t have the video. We don’t have the audio. This left Virginia and Kevin Stephens with uncertainty, anxiety and lack of closure,” said attorney Ben Crittenden during a video conference Wednesday. “We have filed a federal lawsuit to find out what happened that night with Kelly Stephens and find recompense for the family.”

Kevin and Virginia Stephens will work with John Sweeney and Steve Glickman, civil rights attorneys from Los Angeles, and Crittenden, whose office is in Anchorage. The suit, filed today with the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, does not yet have a set date for the next step in the proceedings.

“JPD said it was a grappling hook. It was dog leash with a carabiner. They look nothing alike,” said Crittenden. “The evidence is going to show Officer James Esbenshade was never in fear for his safety or his life when he shot and killed Kelly Stephens.”

JPD did not immediately return requests for comment.

The attorneys are calling for the release of the video and audio of the encounter, which the JPD has not yet released.

“Let me just say also that the JPD and the authorities move at glacial speed compared to the rest of the country in releasing this information. It’s very simple for the parents to have questions about how their son was killed. We were going to file suit anyway,” said Sweeney. “We’re entitled to get everything under the federal rules of civil procedures. We want to get everything so that we can do our own independent investigation. We want to get to the bottom of this.”

The suit, which also seeks unspecified damages, alleges that Esbenshade’s killing of Stephens was wrongful, no matter what Stephens’ personal life circumstances were.

“He was a young man. There were things in his life that maybe he would want to change. The most important thing here was he was not a threat to Officer Esbenshade. It wouldn’t matter if he was the worst person in the world, and we’re not saying that,” Sweeney said. “You cannot make a bad police shooting a good police shooting with hindsight. Any problem he may have had in the past is irrelevant.”

The JPD will review the suit, and may have a more substantiative comment in the future once they’ve had a chance to examine it in more depth, responded JPD Lt. Krag Campbell in an email.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757.621.1197 or lockett@juneauempire.com.

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