A federal jury on Monday ruled in favor of Officer Dennis Hutchins of the Little Rock Police Department, rejecting a wrongful death claim brought by the family of a man Hutchins shot and killed almost five years ago.
Shortly after midnight on October 25, 2016, Hutchins and another officer responded to a series of 911 calls about a fight between Roy Richards Jr. and his uncle, Derrell Underwood. Richards, intoxicated and belligerent, was refusing to leave Underwood’s house at 514 East 8th Street. The two men were in the front yard when officers approached the scene on foot, and Richards held what appeared to be a rifle; it turned out to be a BB gun.
Without either officer announcing their presence, Hutchins fired five shots at Richards with his secondary patrol weapon, an AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle, striking him twice. Hutchins later said he used deadly force because he feared for Underwood’s life, although witnesses — and Underwood himself — said Underwood had already gone inside his home when Hutchins opened fire. Hutchins is white; Richards was Black.
An internal LRPD investigation cleared Hutchins of wrongdoing, and prosecutors did not charge him with a crime. But Vanessa Cole, Richards’ sister, sued the officer on behalf of her brother’s estate. Cole and her attorneys maintain that Hutchins should have had time to warn Richards before shooting.
The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network reported in depth on the case earlier this month, before the trial began.
The jury on Monday delivered its verdict to Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. after deliberating about three hours. The one-week trial had included testimony from Hutchins, Underwood, neighbors who observed the incident, expert witnesses and others.
Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter, who represented Hutchins, said Wednesday the jury made the right call. Hutchins, he said, “did what he thought was the best thing to do” that night in 2016.
“I think the officer genuinely believed that Mr. Richards was a threat at that moment that the officer fired,” Carpenter said. “It was only after the fact that it was discovered that [Richards’ gun] was an air rifle and not another type of rifle. And that's the problem that officers have — they come into a situation where they don’t know the individuals, and they have to make these almost instantaneous decisions.”
Mike Laux, the lead attorney representing Cole, said he plans to appeal. The one-week trial included a number of “irregularities,” he said, including problems with how crucial questions of fact were asked of the jury and inconsistencies in how the jury answered.
The jury in the Hutchins case was asked to deliver two verdicts. Before deciding in favor of one party or the other, it first was told to resolve a series of factual questions about how events unfolded in the seconds leading up to Richards’ death, including: Where was Richards pointing the BB gun when Hutchins fired? Was Richards facing the house or away from the house? Was Underwood inside or outside?
Answering those questions was a prerequisite to determining whether Hutchins actions were reasonable, according to a ruling by a federal judge in 2019 who rejected Hutchins’ attempts to get the case thrown out of court on the basis of qualified immunity. A three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with that ruling in 2020, paving the way for a jury trial to proceed.
The verdict on the factual questions was handed down on Friday. The jury said Underwood was inside his home by the time Hutchins shot at Richards and that “less than 3 seconds” passed between Underwood closing the front door of his house and Hutchins opening fire. Yet the jury also answered “no” to a question asking whether it was “feasible for Hutchins to give Richards a warning before firing his rifle.”
Laux said the two responses were at odds with one another. “That makes absolutely no sense,” Laux said. “That is what you call an irreconcilable inconsistency — one that mandates a mistrial.” (Earlier in the trial, he said, Hutchins himself acknowledged a warning could be given in as little time as one second.)
Laux said the responses indicate the questions were not well drafted and confused jurors. He also said the trial proceeded unusually quickly and noted Judge Marshall was also presiding over another case at the same time, the criminal trial of former lobbyist and political fundraiser Gilbert Baker.
“I think the frenetic pace that we were working at only caused jury confusion. And all of these irregularities we think are mostly a byproduct of this inexplicable desire to fast track this case,” he said.
Carpenter said he was confident Hutchins would prevail on appeal.
“If it is appealed, you’ve got a jury verdict, and it’s very hard to overturn a jury verdict. I think the thing will be upheld and this will be essentially over,” he said.
This story is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.