Where the estate of a man alleged that Winchester police shot and killed him, and then engaged in a conspiracy to cover up the alleged police shooting, but the jury returned a verdict for the officer after only 93 minutes of deliberation, there was no basis to set the verdict aside and grant a new trial.
This case was tried before a jury in Harrisonburg for five days between Sept. 19-23, 2022. The lone remaining defendant, Winchester police officer Stephanie Sills, denied that any police officer shot and killed D’Londre Minifield and that there was a conspiracy to cover up the alleged police shooting. After five days of trial, the jury was presented with a series of special interrogatories, the first of which asked: “Has the plaintiff proven by a preponderance of the evidence that D’Londre Minifield was shot and killed by a police officer?”
The jury answered “No” to this question, and the court entered judgment for Sills. This matter is before the court on plaintiff’s motion to set aside the jury verdict and for a new trial, and request for hearing on the motion for new trial.
The estate first asserts that the jury verdict was against the clear weight of the evidence, essentially reframing for the court the arguments made to the jury during closing argument. The jury heard irreconcilable accounts and concluded that the estate did not prove that Minifield was shot and killed by a police officer. The jury’s verdict was amply supported by the evidence, and there is no basis upon which the court can set the verdict aside and grant a new trial under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 59(e) or 60(b).
The estate next argues that the jury could not have done its job by returning a verdict in 93 minutes. But where the evidence is sufficient to support the verdict, the “length of a jury’s deliberation doesn’t refute that presumption.”
The estate argues that the court erred in admitting evidence concerning the forensic examination of the revolver found at the scene and Dr. Field’s autopsy report because of chain of custody deficiencies concerning the revolver and Minifield’s body. The estate’s conjectural concerns about the chain of custody do not undermine the authentication and identification of evidence concerning Minifield’s autopsy and the revolver.
Even if there is a link missing in the chain, the evidence may be admitted if there is adequate proof that the evidence was authentic and unadulterated. The testimony of the state medical examiner and the officers on the scene clearly met this requirement, and there is no basis to overturn the verdict simply because Minifield’s body spent the night in a funeral home or because the revolver was secured and photographed by Winchester police personnel before being turned over to the Virginia State Police.
The estate argues that the court erred in admitting into evidence the results of a toxicology report done as part of the autopsy reflecting controlled substances in Minifield’s blood. The fact that Minifield had cocaine in his blood at the time of his death was relevant as to credibility and to rebut the plaintiff’s theory that Minifield did not use drugs other than marijuana and that the police planted the revolver and drugs on Minifield after they shot him. Further, as Minifield was on probation at the time, the presence of cocaine in his blood is consistent with the defense theory that Minifield, fearful of being returned to prison, chose to take his own life.
On Sept. 27, 2022, the day after plaintiff filed her motion for a new trial, the court received a barely legible handwritten letter from Donald Bowman, claiming his cellmate (Davon Brown) and another man (Josh Brown) had information about the case.
The estate had years to obtain the testimony of Davon and Josh Brown but did not take their depositions or secure their attendance as trial witnesses. The fact that Davon and Josh Brown may have information concerning the events of Feb. 28, 2016, is not new information.
Motion for new trial, to set aside the verdict and for evidentiary hearing denied.
Minifield v. Sills, Case No. 5:17-cv-43, Feb. 28, 2023. WDVA at Harrisonburg (Urbanski). VLW 023-3-090. 27 pp.