PBSO to federal judge: Race card spurred $22.4 million verdict

Claiming lawyers representing Dontrell Stephens improperly played the race card to win a $22.4 million verdict against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and Deputy Adams Lin, sheriff’s attorneys on Monday will ask a federal magistrate to reduce the award.

An attorney from Searcy Denney Scarola, Barnhart & Shipley pushes Dontrell Stephens as he heads into the U.S. Federal Courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 28, 2016. Dontrell Stephens, who became a paraplegic after being shot in the chest by Sgt. Adams Lin in September 2013, claims the Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy used excessive force during the incident. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Attorney Patrick Quinlan pushes Dontrell Stephens into the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale during the trial this year. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Throughout the trial that ended in February, Stephens’s lawyers repeatedly implied that the 2013 shooting that left the 22-year-old West Palm Beach man paralyzed from the waist down was racially motivated, sheriff’s attorneys Summer Barranco and Richard Giuffreda contend in court papers.

Stephens’ attorneys made reference to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which grew in response to police shootings of black men throughout the nation, Barranco wrote.

“It was clear that (Stephens’) counsel wanted the jury to see this case as another one of those egregious cases they had seen in the media where a cop shot an unarmed young black man for no good reason,” she wrote.

The racial overtones inflamed the jury, spurring them to act on passion and prejudice rather than reason, she claims.

Further, she wrote, while Stephens may be paralyzed, he is not bed-ridden nor does he require round-the-clock nursing care.

“The testimony in this case showed … he was actually able to do quite a lot  for himself,” Barranco wrote, pointing out that he can transfer himself from a bed to a wheelchair and can wheel himself around without assistance.

Attorney Jack Scarola, who represents Stephens, scoffed at Barranco’s attempt to put what he called “a positive spin” on Stephens’ injuries. “The cold harsh reality is that a healthy, active 20-year-old man was sentenced to over half a century in a wheelchair, unable to move from the waist down,” he wrote.

Lin shot Stephens seconds after stopping him for riding his bicycle erratically in morning rush-hour traffic on Haverhill Road. The shooting was captured on a video camera on Lin’s dashboard.

In closing arguments, Scarola told jurors that “Dontrell Stephens’ life mattered.” If Barranco or Giuffreda didn’t like it, they should have objected at the time, he wrote.

The verdict was rendered by a “intelligent, attentive and diligent jury that was fully qualified to assess the damages sustained by Dontrell Stephens,” he wrote. Contrary to Barranco’s assertions, he insisted they weren’t driven by passion or prejudice but powerful facts.

The hearing before U.S. Magistrate Barry Seltzer is to begin at 2 p.m.