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Officer prevails on excessive force, wrongful death claims

Where a police officer’s gun was never fired, the medical examiner ruled the decedent’s death a suicide and a gun recovered at the scene had the decedent’s blood on it and a bullet missing, the officer was granted summary judgment on the excessive force and wrongful death claims because there was no evidence she shot the decedent.

Background

In this wrongful death case arising out of officer Stephanie Nan Sills’ shooting D’Londre Minifield, the court previously ruled there were genuine issues of material fact as to Count Two (excessive force), Count Three (conspiracy) and Count Six (wrongful death). Specifically, whether Minifield was on the ground or was on the fence at the time of or immediately following the gunshot is plainly disputed. Sills has now filed a motion for reconsideration.

Wrongful death

In the prior summary judgment decision, the court focused on the disputed evidence as to the location of Minifield’s body. But what the court failed to note then, however, is that whether Minifield was on the fence or on the ground at the time of the fatal gunshot, there is no way short of sheer speculation for a jury to find that Sills fired the fatal gunshot.

Lead Virginia state police investigator John Defilippi’s investigative report shows that the firearms recovered from officers Sills and Ivins, with serial numbers registered to Sills and Ivins, were never fired. After the weapons were turned over, testing on Sills’ and Ivins’ Glock 22 pistols showed that the firearms each were loaded with one round in the chamber and 14 rounds in the magazine. This meant the firearms were considered fully loaded or not to have been discharged because they have a magazine capacity of 15 rounds. While plaintiff posits speculative theories about officers switching weapons, that is utter speculation.

Further, the day after Minifield’s death, Defilippi conducted a search of the area in an attempt to recover any bullets or other items of evidence that were left on the scene. No items were located until Minifield’s family shared a bullet they recovered from the scene days later. The Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Forensic Science microscopically examined the bullet and identified it as having been fired from a revolver recovered at the scene.

The revolver was found covered in Minifield’s blood. Forensic testing of the blood found that Minifield could not be eliminated as a contributor to the blood DNA profile and the probability of the blood DNA profile returning results that were inconsistent with Minifield or someone related to him was 1 in greater than 7.2 billion.

Moreover, there is no testimony or other evidence from other officers or witnesses indicating that any Winchester police officer fired a gunshot at Minifield, much less that Sills fired a gunshot. Furthermore, Minifield’s autopsy report reports that his death was the result of a contact gunshot wound to the right side of his head and the manner of death was suicide. As a result, the motion to reconsider summary judgment as to Count Two and Count Six must be granted and those counts must be dismissed against Sills.

Conspiracy

While there is no evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Sills fired the fatal shot, the court’s review of the depositions and exhibits support its view at this stage of the proceedings that the differing accounts and locations of Minifield’s body create a genuine issue of material fact relevant to Count Three’s conspiracy claim.

Taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the conflicting stories on the location of Minifield’s body support a plausible claim that the police misled the public on details surrounding Minifield’s death. While this issue may be resolved at trial following the testimony of the medical examiner regarding the nature of Minifield’s fatal gunshot wound, the claim of a conspiracy to cover up a police shooting cannot be resolved at this procedural stage. Accordingly, the court denies the motion for reconsideration as to Count Three at this point.

Stephanie Sills’ motion to reconsider granted in part, denied in part.

Minifield v. Sills, Case No. 5:17-cv-43, Aug. 15, 2022. WDVA at Harrisonburg (Urbanski). VLW 022-3-354. 20 pp.

VLW 022-3-354

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