Wrongful death lawsuit against Juneau police officer in fatal shooting dropped

Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer during a press conference on Sunday, December 29, 2019, at the Juneau Police Department headquarters in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The wrongful death lawsuit against the Juneau police officer who fatally shot 34-year-old Kelly Stephens last year is over.

Filings in the U.S. District Court of Alaska say both sides agreed last week to drop the case. The parties also agreed that this is the end of the federal case.

The lawsuit was against Officer James Esbenshade, Police Chief Ed Mercer, and the City and Borough of Juneau. Stephens’ family sued in July, seeking damages and the department to improve its investigations into uses of force.

State prosecutors reviewed the December 2019 shooting. And they reviewed it again after the plaintiff’s attorneys highlighted audio from Esbenshade’s body camera, claiming it showed he planned the killing. Both times, state prosecutors concluded Esbenshade’s use of force was justified.

Esbenshade’s body camera and dashboard camera captured the fatal shooting. He was responding to a report of a gunshot at a housing complex. Within seconds of getting out of his car, Stephens repeatedly threatened to kill the officer while walking toward him and swinging a rope leash with a carabiner and chain attached to it.

Esbenshade ordered him to stop three times, then shot Stephens once.

In a press release, City Manager Rorie Watt thanked the community for its patience as the reviews and judicial process played out. He also expressed sympathy to Stephens’ friends and family.

Lawyers for the family were not ready to comment.

Jeremy Hsieh

Local News Reporter, KTOO

I dig into questions about the forces and institutions that shape Juneau, big and small, delightful and outrageous. What stirs you up about how Juneau is built and how the city works?

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