Defense rests in civil case over fatal officer-involved shooting of Benton teen

Benton officer tells of chaotic scene

Great Seal of Arkansas in a court room in Washington County. Thursday, June 21, 2018,
Great Seal of Arkansas in a court room in Washington County. Thursday, June 21, 2018,

Municipal League attorneys defending a former Benton police officer over a fatal encounter in 2016 that claimed the life of a suicidal 17-year-old rested their case Friday in federal court after calling their final three witnesses, an officer who was present at the shooting and two expert witnesses.

Attorneys Jenna Adams and Gabrielle Gibson called Benton police Lt. Ronald Davidson, one of three officers who confronted Keagan Schweikle on the bank of the Saline River near Lyle Park in Benton as the armed teenager threatened suicide, as well as a forensics expert and an expert on police procedures to wrap up their defense of Kyle Ellison -- the officer who shot Schweikle, former Benton Police Chief Kirk Lane and the city of Benton.

Keagan Schweikle's mother, Piper Partridge, who currently lives in Colorado, and his father, Dominic Schweikle of Durango, Colo., filed a wrongful death lawsuit on July 17, 2017, nine months to the day after their son was killed on Oct. 17, 2016. They are represented by Mark Geragos of Los Angeles and by Richard Holiman of Little Rock.

On the witness stand Friday, Davidson's testimony delved into his actions that day as he arrived on the scene and, after contacting Ellison and Benton police Det. Douglas Speer. He described a chaotic scene as Ellison's police dog, Duco, raced through thick underbrush with the officers struggling to keep up.

Davidson said on Friday and his and Speer's role was to act as Ellison's eyes and ears so that the officer could concentrate on the dog. He said the terrain, which was steep, hilly and overgrown, made traversing the area difficult as he and Speer struggled to keep up.

"Once the dog got on the track you've pretty much got to go with the dog," Davidson said. "Duco was amped up and he was moving a lot faster than I would have liked to have gone because we're tripping over and getting our feet tangled up in vines and that kind of thing."

At one point, he said, the three came across an old barbed wire fence that Duco ducked under with such speed that Ellison got tangled up, "and wound up doing a cartwheel into a washout."

A few seconds later, he said, the three officers moved into a clearing next to the river.

"That's where we encountered Mr. Schweikle," he said.

Within seconds of that encounter, he said, Schweikle was dead, shot twice in the chest by Ellison.

Davidson described a chaotic scene by the riverbank, with Ellison struggling to keep Duco -- who was barking and lunging at Schweikle -- by his side with one hand and holding his pistol in the other as his two cover officers tried to gain their footing and get into position on either side of Ellison. He said he heard Ellison speak to someone before Schweikle came into his view, saw Schweikle raise the gun -- "He traced it along his body and puts it to his head." He then heard Ellison shouting at Schweikle to drop the gun and then heard three shots.

"This is all happening in seconds. There's a lot of things happening simultaneously," Davidson said. "I'm actually unholstering my weapon at the same time I'm seeing the gun and watching it trace along the body, I'm pressing out and getting a sight picture in case I have to shoot. I'm seeing the gun go to his head, he's yelling for him to drop the gun ... I'm hoping he drops the gun, obviously, but I'm also preparing myself in case he turns the gun on us ... and I'm drawing all of the slack out of my trigger preparing to fire."

As Davidson's service weapon -- a Glock semi-automatic pistol -- was brought into the courtroom and a safety inspection performed by Court Security Officer Eugene Gray in preparation for a demonstration by Davidson for the jury, Partridge stood up and left the courtroom, a grim look on her face.

Davidson then demonstrated how his finger had taken up all the slack from the trigger, disengaging the internal safety mechanism, "and the slightest bit of pressure will allow the firing pin to drop."

With a nearly imperceptible move of his finger, the firing pin fell onto the empty chamber with an audible "click" that resonated loudly in the hushed courtroom.

After Schweikle was shot, Davidson said, all three went toward him. He said he checked for a pulse but found none.

"There was just some raspy breathing," he said. "I remember orienting his head toward me and trying to comfort him, tell him that help was on the way ... I watched as his pupils dilated ... then constricted to a pinpoint and I knew he had passed."

Asked when the objective of finding Schweikle and getting help for him changed, Davidson said, "at the time he pointed the gun at us."

"Our objective at that time was to get home safely," he said.

Geragos, on cross examination, asked Davidson about the flurry of activity that boiled down to those few seconds between the time Ellison first spotted Schweikle and when he shot three times, hitting the teen twice in the chest.

"There's a great deal of," he said, "would it be fair to say chaos, going on?" Geragos asked.

"There was a lot going on," Davidson agreed.

Reviewing Davidson's interview in the aftermath of the shooting, Geragos homed in on Davidson's earlier description of the incident.

"You've got this teenager who hears, 'drop the gun, drop the gun,' loud?" he asked. "Command voice?"

"Yes," Davidson agreed.

"Starts to move it, you simultaneously hear the three shots, correct?" Geragos asked.

"Yes," Davidson replied.

During testimony from Dr. James Claude Upshaw Downs, a forensic pathologist from South Carolina who testified as an expert witness for the defense, the doctor demonstrated for the jury how Schweikle could have suffered the wound that entered his chest and exited his back without affecting his shoulder blade as a result of his arm being elevated as he pointed the gun at the officers by holding his arm straight out from his shoulder.

Under cross examination by Geragos, Downs admitted that the wound was also consistent with Schweikle's arm being elevated with the gun pointed to his head, pointed out to the right of his body, or as it would be situated when first removing the gun from his head as though preparing to drop his arm to his side.

John "Jack" Ryan, a police practices expert from Rhode Island, who retired after 20 years with the Providence Police Department, testified that the police response to Partridge's 911 call, the killing of Schweikle, the investigation into the shooting and the clearing of Ellison of wrongdoing were all in compliance with accepted police procedures and practices.

"Anytime an officer is faced with the possibility of serious injury or death," Ryan said, "the appropriate response is deadly force."

He said the Benton Police Department's investigation of the incident instead of calling in an outside agency was also consistent with standard practice among larger agencies.

"It's not unusual to see agencies that investigate their own officer-involved shootings," he said. "There's really nothing wrong with that."

But Ryan was put on the defensive as Geragos asked him about information from Rhode Island that tied him to an investigation into corruption that at one point, Geragos said, threatened to cost Ryan his pension.

"You were labeled a corrupt former law officer in that case, correct?" Geragos asked.

"I don't believe that's true," Ryan protested.

"You were called to testify before the Police Review Board and you invoked the 5th Amendment in response to every question that's in the case, right?" Geragos asked.

Ryan responded that all officers who testified at that hearing were advised by the police union attorneys to invoke the 5th Amendment.

"You not only invoked the 5th to every question," Geragos said, "but the court labeled you a corrupt former officer."

"I'd have to see that," Ryan said.

"I'll have somebody print it up," Geragos said.

The two men sparred back and forth for some 40 minutes, often talking over one another to the point it was nearly impossible to discern what was being said. Although Geragos was unable to provide solid proof of wrongdoing on Ryan's part, Gibson spent 20 minutes on re-direct having Ryan explain the incidents brought up by Geragos to the jury.

After Adams and Gibson rested the defense case, Miller instructed the 11 jurors, down from the original 12, to return to court Monday for jury instructions and closing arguments, at which time he said the jury will begin its deliberations.

Upcoming Events