A criminal defense lawyer Thursday accused Austin police of arresting his client for aggravated robbery to avoid legal liability for shooting the unarmed defendant in the back as he fled the scene.
State District Judge Jon Wisser postponed a ruling on legal motions to make several officers, including Police Chief Stan Knee, testify and disclose personnel files — including an internal affairs investigation of the shooting.
But the judge questioned the relevance of the shooting to the robbery charges.
“How is that connected to whether your client committed a robbery in a house before officers even got there?” asked the judge in Thursday’ s pre-trial hearing. “I understand you and your client are aggrieved with his gunshot. But I’m not sure this is the right forum.”
Gregory Steen, 32, is charged with trying to rob several people at a North Austin house in October. Steen denied the charges, saying he was there to get high on crack cocaine. Responding to a 911 call, officers were told a robbery was in progress. After surrounding the house, the officers went through the front door.
According to police records, Steen jumped out a back window, and Officer Keith Sheffield fired two shots. It was after midnight, dark and raining heavily. Sheffield was standing 60 feet away in a neighbor’s yard, according to records. Steen was hit once in the back but was able to run away. He was arrested a couple of hours later after officers found him lying in a yard two houses away. No gun was found on Steen.
Knee suspended Sheffield for one day, then waived the suspension after Sheffield completed training on when to shoot and when not to shoot. The police have declined to release details of the shooting investigation to the Austin American-Statesman, although a grand jury declined to indict the officer. Typically, investigative files are public after a case is closed. The police are arguing that the shooting case remains open until Steen is prosecuted for the robbery.
While Sheffield’s discipline has prompted the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union to call for a civilian board to review complaints against the police, Steen’s lawyer, David Frank, said the police arrested his client for robbery on what he calls thin evidence in an attempt to avoid liability for shooting Steen.
Prosecutors deny that.
Thursday’s hearing centered on whether the police have to release Sheffield’s personnel files, including medical records and the shooting investigation. David Douglas, a city attorney, argued that state law exempts the chief, two investigators, a police psychologist and the director of human resources from releasing the information.
Frank contended that Sheffield, a six-year veteran, suffered a head injury in a high-speed car chase before the shooting. He questioned whether Sheffield’s injuries affected his abilities and memory of the October shooting and robbery.
Even if the judge deems the information relevant to the robbery trial, Douglas said admitting it as evidence would only mislead a jury. If the judge deems any information confidential, Frank asked the judge to review it in his chambers to determine whether it’s relevant to Steen’s defense.
Copyright © 1998, The Austin American-Statesman
Laylan Copelin, City’s police motive for man’s arrest questioned: Suspect in robbery trial seeks files about shooting.