Testimony began Monday in a 2012 federal lawsuit alleging that two officers used excessive force during an encounter Sept. 13, 2011 with a 16-year-old boy and his mother on a Dover street.
Little Rock attorney Pat James contends that a part-time Dover officer, Steven Payton, overreacted after he drove past the mother and son, misinterpreted what was going on and then stopped and questioned the pair as they walked their miniature Schnauzer, Jake, about half a block from their home.
James said Payton called for backup and soon two other officers arrived -- Pope County sheriff's Sgt. Kristopher Stevens, who James accused of unnecessarily using a Taser on Matthew Robinson several times, and Arkansas State Police Cpl. Stewart Condley, whom James accused of abandoning his duty to protect the boy from the other two officers. Condley, however, was dismissed from the lawsuit in June by a divided three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis after he appealed Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Miller's refusal to grant him qualified immunity.
While James contends that the mother and son "are good, law-abiding citizens, the last people you'd expect to have problems with the police," defense attorneys told jurors that the officers weren't sure who they were dealing with or whether Robinson, a large boy who looked like a grown man, might have a weapon.
Keith Wren, a Little Rock attorney representing Payton, said the officer was a full-time Pope County sheriff's deputy who filled in occasionally as a Dover officer to make extra money. He said that as Payton drove by, he saw what looked to him like a large man approaching a small woman on a Tuesday night when not many people were walking on the streets of the small town.
As Payton continued to drive down the street, keeping an eye on the situation, he realized the woman was standing with the man, obviously unafraid of him, Wren said. Having decided there was no threat, the officer turned on a side street to resume his patrol duties, Wren said, but became suspicious when he saw Robinson staring at him intently, then reach deep into his pockets, pick something up off the ground and throw it in the bushes. Wren said Payton parked at a nearby church, flipped on his rear blue lights to prevent someone from hitting the car from behind and got out, asking Robinson, "What's up?"
Wren said Robinson replied, "I'm not doing anything illegal," then, when asked what was in his pocket, said, "It's not illegal to put my hands in my pockets."
When Payton asked Robinson what he threw, Robinson denied throwing anything, Wren said. Then when the officer asked the boy for identification, the boy told him to call the police chief, who was a friend of the Robinson family. Wren told jurors that Matthew's mother, Eva, then stepped between the officer and her son, told the officer to leave them alone and, when asked for identification, also dropped the name of the police chief.
Wren said that when the Robinsons' dog got loose and the mother and son both ran after him, the officer, who was much smaller in stature than Matthew Robinson, "thought they might be fleeing" and went to his car to get his Taser. Meanwhile, as backup officers arrived, Wren said, Payton ordered Matthew Robinson to sit in the back of the patrol car, and the boy's mother and dog went there voluntarily.
Wren said that when the officers asked Matthew Robinson to exit the car and he didn't -- because his large foot was stuck under the front seat, James contends -- Stevens shot him with the Taser, prompting Robinson's mother to think he was being shot with a gun.
Wren played a grainy video from Stevens' car that he said shows Matthew Robinson "taking a swing at officer Payton," prompting Stevens to shoot him with the Taser.
Burt Newell, a Hot Springs attorney representing Stevens, told jurors that Robinson didn't get out of the back seat of the car for 40 seconds and that the officers knew he hadn't been searched, couldn't see his hands and feared he might have a weapon. Wren noted that Robinson was an offensive lineman on the high school's football team, and Newell said the boy weighed over 200 pounds.
James contends that the boy was not only prong-stunned with the Taser but also "drive-stunned," which is when the device is held continuously against someone's body. He said that caused a wound at the base of the boy's tailbone that over time required him to undergo three surgeries.
James told jurors that the Robinson family is seeking compensatory damages for the medical injuries, as well as punitive damages. He called Payton and Stevens "two small-town cops who were flexing their muscles" and have never been investigated or punished for their actions.
Though both mother and son were arrested that night, Eva Robinson was eventually cleared of her misdemeanor charges, and Matthew was "adjudicated delinquent" in juvenile court.
Newell told jurors, "There wouldn't have been any problems had Matthew Robinson simply told officer Payton who he was" or gotten out of the car as Stevens had asked. Newell contends Stevens stubbornly resisted the officers' efforts to get him out of the vehicle.
The trial in Miller's Little Rock courtroom is expected to last about a week.
Metro on 09/29/2015
Print Headline: Jury told how police Taser hit Dover teen