The Case of Peter Stewart
From June 8th to June 20th, 2011, the case Jacqueline Alford v. Jamie Barney was held in the San Francisco Federal Court at 450 Golden Gate Avenue. This case involved the death of Peter Stewart, a young Hupa man, at the hands of law enforcement.
Jacqueline Marshall-Alford, a Hupa Tribal Member, is the mother of Peter Stewart who was killed on June 4, 2007 and Jamie Barney is a Humboldt County Sheriff’s Deputy who threw a pyrotechnic device in the window of a house while Peter Stewart was inside.
Jacqueline Marshall-Alford tells the story of her son, a generous and kind young man: “On June 3rd, an ambulance was called to take my son Peter back to Semprevirens Mental Hospital in Eureka…an ambulance never came, what happened was police came flying into the yard where Peter was, brandishing weapons and holding a gun to his head.”
“The witness said Peter said, ‘What did I do?, the officer said, ‘nothing’.”
At that point Peter ran back inside. The incident took place at a rural residence on the Hoopa Tribal Reservation.
Jacqueline Alford continues, “More and more Sheriffs came, along with the Eureka Police Department and Pelican Bay SWAT team, it was scary, I know my son was scared to death seeing 100 armed officers pointing guns at the house, with his disorder, of course he wouldn’t come out…June 4th came, they began shooting tear gas in the home, they shot 50 rounds of tear gas in the home, we heard it, and the entire Hoopa community heard it on their scanners and counted them.”
Jacqueline Alford was not allowed to approach the home to speak to her son. There was no attempt to give Peter a cell phone to speak with his mother, or anyone else. Instead the “negotiations” were carried on by loudspeaker.
The pyrotechnic device was thrown in the window of the home after more than forty tear gas canisters had already been deployed with as many as 50 law enforcement officers present, representing many different agencies. After the house caught fire, the Pelican Bay SWAT team did not allow the three fire trucks from the Hoopa Fire Department to enter the scene, even as the house was engulfed completely by fire.
Peter Stewart died of smoke inhalation, and his body was found naked and wrapped in wet sheets in the bathtub. His body was covered in tear gas burns.
The trial took place at the Federal Building in San Francisco, because it is a constitutional rights case, argued by lawyers Dale K. Galipo and Brian Claypool, and based on the 4th and 14th Amendments. The argument is that Humboldt County Sheriff’s Deputy Barney violated the constitutional rights of Peter Stewart and his surviving family members, specifically his mother. It was not a criminal case—in other words, the Sheriff’s Deputy was not on trial and faced no criminal justice reprimand; it was a trial to determine whether to award the victim’s mother damages. The 4th Amendment argument was based on the violation of Peter Stewart’s constitutional rights, and the 14th Amendment argument is based on whether the actions of law enforcement in this case “shock the conscience”, meaning that the officer acted with deliberate indifference, and that his acts were not done to carry out a legitimate law enforcement duty. It was argued that because Deputy Barney had training in pyrotechnics that qualified him to make decisions about the provided pyrotechnic arsenal, and because Deputy Barney had ample time to approach the window to throw in the device and was not rushed in his actions, that his actions amounted to excessive force.
There was testimony from various law enforcement officers present for the incident, testimony from Ms. Alford, testimony offered by experts paid by the Deputy’s defense team. Many members of Peter Stewart’s family traveled from Hupa to be present for the trial. After two and half days of deliberation, the jury voted unanimously that the level of force was not excessive.
Berkeley Copwatch was present for most of the trial. We continue to see cases throughout Northern California where law enforcement take the place of trained mental health workers, and respond to people experiencing mental instability with force. This force is often at deadly levels. We review the facts of barricading a person inside a residence for two days surrounded by armed force, shooting canister after canister of tear gas into a residence, deploying a pyrotechnic device by a trained officer (who thus was aware of its potential) knowing the home was full of tear gas, and obstructing family and local fire department from entering the site. If this is not excessive force, what should we call it?
We would like to thank to Redwood Curtain Copwatch, who has helped organize the community to respond to three vicious law enforcement related deaths in Humboldt County in the summer of 2007. This includes Peter Stewart, Hans Peters, and Martin Cotton. The case of Martin F. Cotton II, who was severely beaten by seven Eureka Police Department officers and who two hours later died in the Humboldt County Correctional Facility, will begin on September 12, 2011 in the Bay Area.
Berkeley Copwatch also extends its respect and solidarity to the Jacqueline Alford and the family of Peter Stewart, as well as the Hoopa Community, for standing up to such brutality and for the strength of their struggle for accountability.
Please join us, and Redwood Curtain Copwatch, in organizing locally against rampant police violence in Humboldt County. For updates and information see Berkeley Copwatch’s website, and Redwood Curtain Copwatch at www.RedwoodCurtainCopwatch.net