Lawyers want investigation of police shooting reopened

Lawyers want investigation of police shooting reopened

Attorneys say new evidence merits reexamination of previously cleared officer.

The lawyers representing the family of a Juneau man fatally shot by police urged the Alaska Department of Law to reopen an investigation into the circumstances of the shooting during a Wednesday news conference.

Regardless of if the case is reopened, lawyers said they intend to move forward with a suing the officer, City and Borough of Juneau and the Juneau Police Department.

“We’re asking them to reopen the case with an eye on prosecuting this officer,” said John Sweeney, an attorney representing the Stephens family. “We are going forward with or without the OSP (Office of Special Prosecution).”

Kelly Michael Stephens, 34, was shot by JPD Officer James Esbenshade at about 12:30 a.m. on Dec. 29, 2019, as Esbenshade was responding to a call of shots fired and screaming near Cinema Drive. Stephens had been the subject of a call earlier that evening that Esbenshade had responded to. In the call, someone reported a man threatening people with a chain/leash in the parking lot of the Super Bear IGA.

When the Stephens family and their legal representatives announced the lawsuit in July, JPD released video footage of the event that culminated in Esbenshade shooting Stephens.

During the news conference, attorneys shared a separate recording that they said shows circumstances that merit reopening the investigation.

“This is explosive new evidence that the OSP either did not receive or chose to overlook,” said attorney Ben Crittenden, one of the attorneys representing the Stephens family. “The Stephens family is asking OSP to reopen its investigation in light of this evidence.”

Crittenden said that the lawyers representing the family would be moving forward with the lawsuit one way or the other.

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The attorneys released body cam video of Esbenshade between calls, highlighting a segment where Esbenshade appears to be envisioning a possible violent encounter. Lawyers said they had acquired the recording via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Attorney Steve Glickman, also representing the Stephens family, said that the attorneys had worked with a forensic audiovisual company in Los Angeles to augment the audio, punching up the volume. Subtitles were also added.

“One man’s mental state of mind is huge,” Sweeney said. “That should really give the prosecutors something to consider.”

While Esbenshade, JPD Chief Ed Mercer, the JPD, CBJ and others were named in the suit, they had not yet formally been served, said CBJ city attorney Robert Palmer in a phone interview.

“No city defendant has been served, so we don’t have a lawsuit to formally respond to,” Palmer said. “Without a lawsuit, there’s nothing substantive to respond to. If we’re going to defend something, we’re going to do it in court with a neutral judge.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or lockett@juneauempire.com.

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