JUNEAU, Alaska — State prosecutors will not seek criminal charges against a Juneau police officer in the fatal shooting of a man last year, the Alaska Department of Law said Friday, refuting a claim that the officer had been “formulating” a plan to shoot the man.
Attorneys representing Kelly Stephens' parents last week requested the department's Office of Special Prosecutions re-evaluate its conclusion that the shooting by Officer James Esbenshade was legally justified.
In a letter to Jack McKenna, a chief assistant attorney general with the special prosecutions office, family attorney Ben Crittenden cited an excerpt from a police report he said described “in bone-chilling detail" Esbenshade talking to himself and “formulating” a plan to shoot Stephens if he found him. The family’s attorneys also cited video, taken from Esbenshade’s body camera, whose audio they had enhanced and transcribed.
But the Department of Law on Friday said the statements in the video “do not represent a premeditated plan to find and kill Mr. Stephens.”
Stephens had been accused of threatening a grocery store patron and swinging a long chain before the fatal shooting.
Officers at the scene of the grocery store incident late on Dec. 28 did not find Stephens, according to a March review by McKenna.
An excerpt of the police report released by the family's attorneys referenced Esbenshade driving around after conducting a witness interview after the grocery store incident and talking to himself, saying “something similar to: ‘you can’t come at me with that, that is a deadly weapon. I’d shoot you and drop you dead.’”
The excerpt says Esbenshade later stated, “you get one chance, you better make it good. Because when I get ahold of you... There’d be nothing left of you."
When Esbenshade responded to a call of a shot fired near an apartment complex after midnight on Dec. 29, he had no reason to believe Stephens was involved, the Department of Law said Friday.
According to McKenna’s review — which drew from video, audio records, witness statements and photographs from the Juneau Police Department’s investigation — a man later identified near the complex as Stephens yelled expletives at Esbenshade and told the officer, “I will kill you,” as Esbenshade backed up. The review said Esbenshade had ordered Stephens to stop. The officer was retreating when he raised his gun, McKenna's report said.
“It was not until after retreating for a full twenty seconds, while Mr. Stephens was yelling that he was going to kill the officer, that Officer Esbenshade fired a single shot at Mr. Stephens,” the Department of Law said Friday.
The department said the comments in the video could be viewed “as the officer verbalizing how he would deal with a situation” similar to what was alleged to have happened that night at the grocery store parking lot.
Esbenshade declined to be interviewed about the shooting, according to McKenna's March review of the case. Crittenden and an attorney who has represented Esbenshade did not immediately respond to emails from The Associated Press seeking comment Friday.
The Department of Law said the Office of Special Prosecutions offered to meet with Stephens’ family about its recent request but they declined. The office then sent a response to their attorney, the department said.
Stephens’ parents have filed a civil lawsuit against the Juneau police chief, the city and Esbenshade. Their attorneys said last week the lawsuit had not been served.
Becky Bohrer, The Associated Press