Wrongful death lawsuit against Juneau police officer in fatal shooting dropped

A white, white-haired man in a police uniform speaks at a lecctern in front of blue background
Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer during a press conference on Sunday, December 29, 2019 after a Juneau police officer shot and killed a man in the department’s first fatal officer-involved shooting since 2007. (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 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 improved investigation into uses of force by police.

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 is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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