On Nov. 6, 2008, David Kerstetter was shot and killed inside his home by D.C. police officers. Despite the decision of the U.S. attorney’s office not to prosecute the officers involved, Kerstetter’s family has filed a notice with the District that it plans to sue the city over their son’s death. The family’s attorney, Douglas Sparks, notified Mayor Adrian Fenty in a letter dated May 1 [PDF].
We have written about the Kerstetter shooting here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here—-not to mention the cover story linked above. The Sparks letter is based on the lawyer’s interviews with witnesses, the autopsy report, and an exhaustive scene analysis. It provides the first counter-narrative to law enforcement’s public account that Kerstetter had lunged at the officers with a knife—-that Officer Frederick Friday shot and killed the Logan Circle resident in self defense. The new evidence appears to point to excessive force.
On the morning of Nov. 6, Officers Friday and Christian Glynn responded to the Kerstetter home after receiving a radio report for a suspicious door. The two met with the condo complex’s maintenance man and a concerned neighbor. Sparks writes:
The maintenance man nudged the door open further and yelled upstairs to David, asking if he was home and whether the maintenance man could go upstairs. David replied that he was home, but that he did not want the man to enter or come upstairs because he had seen the police officers standing behind him. David said they should just go away and just leave him alone. The police officers then stood just outside David’s front door for twenty to forty minutes while they spoke further with the maintenance man and neighbor, communicated via radio with police supervisors, and discussed David’s known mental illness…and his history of depression following the death of his partner one year earlier.
Sparks states that the officers were unsure about what to do next. Kerstetter had made it clear that he did not want them in his home. Soon, though, they became “impatient” and announced, “We’re going in.” Sparks says the officers had no “reasonable belief” that a crime was in progress. The two cops drew their guns, went inside, and walked up the stairs to the second-floor living room and kitchen area.
It is unclear what Officers Friday and Glynn found on the second floor. They must have noticed that the furnishings were immaculate, that everything was perfectly in place.
Officers Friday and Glynn eventually made their way up to the third floor.
Sparks notes in his letter:
The officers apparently knew of no standard protocol to follow when responding to calls involving persons in crisis or persons known to suffer from mental illness—-whether from a lack of standards, or a lack of training to carry out existing standards. Nor did they seek assistance from specialists at the District’s Department of Mental Health who were available to assist with these types of matters.
Officers Friday and Glynn found Kerstetter in his bedroom.
Even law enforcement officials are unsure as to what exactly happened inside that bedroom.
Immediately following the shooting, D.C. police issued a press release which stated: “The officers were suddenly confronted by an adult male…reportedly wielding a knife. Reportedly, a struggle ensued as the officers repeatedly ordered the man to drop the weapon. It was at that time that the police in the face of apparent imminent danger fired upon the subject.”
The U.S. attorney’s office tells a different account of the exchange between Kerstetter and Officers Friday and Glynn. Spokesperson Channing Phillips omits the struggle narrative in an e-mail to Washington City Paper:
Mr. Kerstetter threatened to take his own life and held a knife to his own throat. Despite reasonable efforts to avoid taking Mr. Kerstetter’s life by repeatedly telling him to drop the knife, Mr. Kerstetter instead lunged toward the officers with the knife and ultimately left the officer who had his weapon drawn with no choice but to use deadly force to protect himself and others from death or serious bodily injury.
Sparks says the shooting appears to be plain overkill. He points to the autopsy report [PDF] and his scene work. The bloody scene suggests that Kerstetter had been effectively caged in, that he had been trapped in the far left corner of the room between his bed and the bathroom door. So far there has been no evidence cited which supports a struggle between the cops and Kerstetter. The pictures on the bedroom walls remained untouched. A blood-stained vase next to the bathroom door hadn’t been knocked over.
Kerstetter bled out in his bathroom.
According to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s autopsy report, Kerstetter was shot five times. There were two gunshot wounds to the torso. The track of each bullet was front to back and downward. There were three shots to the lower extremities hitting knee, femur, bladder, and so on. The track of each bullet was back to front and upward. “It’s consistent with a man in a sitting position and falling backwards,” Sparks says in an interview.
Sparks writes that the cops fired at least eight rounds at Kerstetter. The three allegedly missed bullets were found in the bathroom floor, the floorboard in front of the bathroom, and in a bathroom wall.
“The trajectory of the rounds that hit David, as well as those that missed him, establishes that the officers fired downward,” Sparks writes. “Blood spatter patterns along baseboards, trim work and elsewhere demonstrate that most, and perhaps all, rounds were fired while David was down and incapacitated.”
In an e-mail sent this afternoon, Phillips says that the U.S. attorney’s office did not conduct blood-spatter analysis in this case, “but it’s my understanding that it wouldn’t have been necessary in this instance given the other corroborating evidence that was available.”
Phillips says the evidence included the knife, shell casings, audiotaped witness statements, and toxicology report.
“Shell casings—-we all know they shot him. No surprise they found shell casings. They found a knife. What does that establish? The issue in question is where were the officers and where was [Kerstetter] when they fired off eight rounds,” Sparks says. “Had they done a blood-spatter analysis, they would have discovered that it contradicts the police assertions and is far more reliable and scientific.”
“We did a thorough forensic examination through a combination of highly respected experts in a variety of disciplines,” Sparks adds. He says that he would want to see law enforcement’s forensic examinations. “What was the available forensic evidence they relied upon? We’d sure like to see it. Not just we. When homicides are committed in our name with our money, the public has a right to know the facts on a basic moral level.”
Sparks notes that police missed at least one bullet during the course of their examination of the Kerstetter home. The family found the bullet when they went through their son’s bedroom. The bullet was found in a floor board:
“If there’s something that’s justified let’s find out. If there’s something that’s not, let’s fix it,” Sparks explains.
In the aftermath of the Kerstetter shooting—-and the shooting death of Osman Abdullahi—-the police department has decided to completely overhaul how it deals with mentally-ill residents.
Photographs courtesy of Douglas Sparks