In 2013, Dontrell Stephens was shot by Sgt. Adams Lin, then a deputy with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office in Florida. During a traffic stop in September of that year, Lin, who is Asian-American, shot Stephens, who is black, four times in four seconds. Stephens was unarmed, and the incident left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair. He was twenty at the time.
After deliberating for just under four hours, the jury hearing the case awarded Stephens $23.1 million, a figure that was slightly reduced by Lin and Stephens' attorneys to $22.4 million. That was in February. Now, Lin's attorney is arguing that the members of the jury were unfairly influenced by high-profile cases in which unarmed black men were shot and killed by police officers, and specifically shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Attorney Summer Barranco argued in an attempt to reduce the damages that comparisons to Lin's case and others were "subtle." She told Magistrate Judge Barry Seltzer, the federal judge overseeing the case, "I'm not saying they were screaming, yelling, pounding their fists on the table," adding that race was "the elephant in the room." She said that the jury's knowledge of deaths of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and others were "frankly what makes this case and this award excessive."
Baranco is disputing the portion of the damages—$16 million—that the jury gave Stephens for pain and suffering.
Stephens' lawyer, Jack Scarola, says there's no merit to Baranco's claims. The Associated Press has more:
Scarola pointed out that he told the jurors that Lin's life mattered, too, and if he had a legitimate reason for shooting Stephens to protect himself, he had every right to fire. The problem, Scarola said, is that he didn't have a legitimate reason to shoot. "Dontrell Stephens' life matters just as much, and certainly no less, than Adam Lin's," Scarola said.
Lin's defense team argues that he mistook Stephens' phone for a gun, and that his reaction was justified. The Sun Sentinel reports that Lin has been cleared of any criminal activity by the State Attorney's Office, and has been promoted to sergeant since the event.
Seltzer does not appear swayed by Barranco's argument. The AP reports that "Seltzer said he would rule on the race question later, but pointed out he went to great lengths in jury selection and in his instructions to assure race wouldn't be a factor." Seltzer said that to support her argument, Barranco will have to bring comparable cases where a young man who was paralyzed was awarded lower damage than Stephens.
In any case, it's likely that Stephens won't be able to access his award for some time. The Sun Sentinel reported in February:
Even if Stephens prevails, it typically takes years for large judgments against law enforcement to be paid. The Florida Legislature must approve any damages paid by local governments above the state's cap of $200,000 through a process known as a claims bill. The shooting left Stephens with $1.5 million in medical bills and nearly $5 million in estimated future medical expenses, [Evett Simmons, Stephens' court-appointed guardian] said. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor of a one-bedroom home he shares with his three brothers and has developed severe bed sores, she said.
Simmons added, "If we can get a claims bill and get it approved, we can get him the medical attention and get him the equipment he needs," but said that "right now, he is in the darkness before he can see some light."
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.