Crime & Courts

Parents sue after Juneau police officer fatally shoots their son

JUNEAU — The parents of a man who died after a Juneau police officer shot him in December sued the officer, city and others Wednesday, alleging wrongful death and civil rights violations.

Kevin and Virginia Stephens, parents of Kelly Michael Stephens, want to know what happened, attorneys said, adding they so far have been unable to get copies of video and audio recordings surrounding the shooting.

Attorney Ben Crittenden said it would be "simple and reasonable" for the Juneau Police Department to release the recordings. "The video does not lie," he said. "It would tell us exactly what happened."

The Office of Special Prosecutions, within the state Department of Law, declined to bring criminal charges against the officer involved in the Dec. 29 shooting, James Esbenshade. The office's report, from Chief Assistant Attorney General Jack McKenna, cited audio and video recordings and witness interviews among the materials included in the investigation.

McKenna concluded Esbenshade was "legally justified in his use of deadly force in order to defend himself from the threat of serious physical injury posed by Mr. Stephens."

Attorney John E. Sweeney, also representing Stephens' parents, said a decision by authorities not to prosecute does not shield an officer from civil liability.

The lawsuit names as defendants Esbenshade; Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer; the city; and others who were not identified. It seeks unspecified damages.


Messages requesting comment were sent to police spokespeople and left for an attorney who represented Esbenshade during the shooting investigation. The city had no comment, public information officer Lisa Phu said.

McKenna's report said police were called to a supermarket late on Dec. 28 for a report of a man threatening a patron. The man was later identified as Stephens, the report said. Responding officers did not find him, and Esbenshade interviewed a man who said he was threatened, the report states.

After midnight, police received a call of a shot fired, with the caller saying there was yelling and someone attempting to get into her apartment, the report says. Esbenshade responded.

The report says a man identified as Stephens yelled expletives at Esbenshade and said to the officer, "I will kill you," as Esbenshade backed up. The report said Esbenshade had ordered Stephens to stop and said Esbenshade was retreating when he raised his gun.

McKenna's report cited footage he said showed Stephens walking toward where Esbenshade was and swinging a leash and chain.

The report said Esbenshade declined to be interviewed about the shooting.

Sweeney said people who were with Stephens that night “paint a different picture.” He said Stephens was not a threat to Esbenshade.

Becky Bohrer, Associated Press

Becky Bohrer is a reporter for the Associated Press based in Juneau.