“I thought he was going to kill me and my partner,” Special Operations Officer David Stevens told a jury Thursday, defending himself on the stand against charges of involuntary manslaughter and third degree assault in the shooting death of Kendall Petersen Jr. in January 2012.
The jury believed Stevens and in less than six hours on Thursday they delivered a not-guilty verdict.
The trial lasted four days and on Thursday Steven provided a calm and precise recounting of events as he remembered them. He said he fired the fatal shot because he thought his life was in danger.
During an early morning raid Jan. 5, 2012 by the V.I. Police Department, Petersen was shot and died later at the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital.
Stevens, with the VIPD since 2006, told the court he and Officer Elsworth Jones were guarding the perimeter of the property to ensure no one left the area or disposed of evidence while other officers executed the search warrant inside the house.
The purpose of the raid was to search for weapons, ammunition, drugs, a gun cleaning kit and other items — some suspected Petersen was connected to several murders. Before the raid, Stevens said he was told by superior officers that Petersen was responsible for three murders on St. Croix – Julio Cruz, Steven Hodge and Shadrack Frett, who was gunned down as he lay in a hospital bed. Stevens was one of the first responders to the Cruz shooting in Frederiksted and saw the murder victim.
“I knew it was going to be dangerous because of who it was,” Stevens said, referring to Petersen and the raid at his house before dawn.
Based on a request by the Assistant Attorney General Mark Webb, prosecuting the case, Judge Robert Molloy cautioned the jury that the comments about Petersen’s involvement in the murders of Frett, Hodge and Cruz were “hearsay” and could not be taken for fact. He allowed the testimony because it pointed to the defendant’s state of mind.
Under questioning by his attorney, David Cattie, Stevens described events leading up to the shooting. After using pepper spray to neutralize several dogs, Stevens said he saw a male leaving the house carrying a gun. He didn’t yell or try to stop the man right away because he thought it was Petersen and was scared.
“He was known to be dangerous, known to be a killer and known to be selling drugs,” Stevens said.
Jones testified earlier in the week that he saw the man fleeing from the house but did not see the gun.
The defendant told the court, although it was still dark and he was not sure, he believed the man running from the house into the bush was Petersen based on his height, clothing and hair. Stevens said he had seen the victim in the past and had conversed with Petersen on several occasions, once at Petersen’s home.
Both officers testified that they couldn’t see what Petersen was doing in the bush but then he turned around and advanced towards them. Stevens said they yelled, “stop” “show your hands,” and “police.” Jones said Petersen raised his hands and then Jones became distracted, looking away for a few seconds. Stevens said Petersen continued coming forward until he was about eight feet away, then crouched down and put his right hand to his waist. The officer said he thought he was going for his gun.
“I thought he was going to shoot because I knew he had committed murder,” Stevens said.
At that point, Stevens fired and Jones looked back to see Petersen falling to the ground.
Later in the day, a handgun with Petersen’s DNA were found in the back yard, along with cash, a rifle scope, six pounds of marijuana, a pellet gun and a holster, witnesses testified during the trial.
Under cross-examination, Stevens said Petersen did not talk to the officers. Webb asked repeatedly why he didn’t shout, “gun” or “stop” when Petersen came out of the house. Stevens said because it was dark it took a few seconds to realize it wasn’t a cop exiting the house and he was afraid it was Petersen.
During closing arguments, Webb accused Stevens of not doing anything to alert or keep safe his fellow officers or himself in the presence of a gun. He proposed that Petersen could have hidden the firearm and escaped but instead he returned to the house to surrender to police. He contended that the angle of the bullet to the head was consistent with someone going to his hands and knees in submission.
“Why would anyone with no weapon run at two officers with guns pointed at him,” he asked the jury.
When he closed, Cattie pointed out that testimony from the medical examiner said Petersen’s body position was consistent with Stevens’ scenario. He pointed out that the officer had no other reason to shoot Petersen than he believed he was in imminent danger. According to Cattie and others who testified, once a person is known to have a firearm, officers are to assume he has it until they know otherwise.
“Whether Kendall Petersen had a gun when he was shot doesn’t mater, what matters is whether David Stevens believed he still had a gun,” Cattie said, adding that Stevens’ fear of injury and actions based on that fear were “reasonable.”
Had Stevens been found guilty of either charge, he would have faced five years in prison, according to his attorney.