Should the wife of Steven Myers be able to evaluate the undersheriff’s fatal beanbag shooting of her unarmed husband by getting copies of sheriff’s body- and dash-camera recordings?
Or should the wife’s request for the recordings be denied because providing copies would interfere with an investigation of the shooting?
Those are two key questions raised in legal arguments underlying a hearing in Barber County District Court on Friday afternoon. Attorneys for the wife are framing it as an issue of transparency in government and law enforcement. Attorneys for the sheriff are contending that they have been as open as they can be under laws governing the release of records and that there is an investigation to protect.
Judge Francis Meisenheimer held the hour-long hearing Friday to determine whether the arguments will be fully debated at a hearing on Dec. 22. An attorney representing the sheriff had tried to block the Dec. 22 hearing from being held. But the judge ruled that the hearing will take place.
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The sheriff, undersheriff and a deputy have been subpoenaed to appear at the hearing.
After the decision, Myers’ father, William Myers, said: “He’s gone. But if we can do something to stop this from happening to other people, it wasn’t all wasted.”
Myers was 42. He and his wife have three small children.
Dozens of friends and relatives of Myers filled the courtroom, and Kristina Myers, the widow, said she was thankful for the support and buoyed by the judge’s decision. The hearing will give the public “a better knowledge of government trying to cover things up,” she said. Part of her concern is that the sheriff can be heard on a recording telling a deputy to turn off his body camera after the shooting, she said.
“That’s all I want out of this is the truth. People need to see what’s been going on here.
“Let’s be clear,” she said. “I’m not against law enforcement at all.” Still, she said, “This (questionable shootings by police) is continuing to happen every day across the country.”
Lawyers representing the wife have argued in court documents that the circumstances surrounding the shooting are in the public interest and that the court can order release of copies of the recordings under the Kansas Open Records Act.
The Eagle also has requested copies of the recordings, and Sheriff Lonnie Small denied the request.
Although representatives of the sheriff have allowed the wife’s attorneys to view the recordings, her lawyers contend that they are entitled to copies.
The sheriff’s attorneys have argued in a court document that the law doesn’t require release of the records and that providing copies would interfere with an investigation by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation of the shooting by Undersheriff Virgil Brewer.
The wife’s attorneys argue that even if there is an active criminal investigation, the recordings include no sensitive information that is not to be disclosed. Releasing the recordings “to the public could not interfere with the investigation of Undersheriff Brewer because he already has the recordings,” her attorneys said in their petition to the court.
The shooting occurred on the evening of Oct. 6 behind a house in Sun City, a town of about 50 people in Barber County. Brewer and other sheriff’s officers responded to a report of a man with a shotgun outside Buster’s bar.
Myers wasn’t armed when he was shot, says Michael Kuckelman, an attorney representing Myers’ wife, Kristina. And contrary to a statement by the KBI hours after the shooting, Myers was obeying commands when he came out of a shed as ordered by the sheriff, Kuckelman has said. Copies of the recordings would demonstrate those facts, Kuckelman maintains.
On Thursday, Kristina Myers’ attorneys filed a lawsuit against Undersheriff Brewer and Sheriff Small in federal court, contending that the shooting was reckless and not justified.
The Eagle has reported that according to Kuckelman’s investigation on how the shooting unfolded and based on national guidelines for “less-lethal” weapons, the undersheriff fired the beanbag round too close to Myers and hit him in the chest – a part of the body that is not to be targeted if the intent is to avoid a fatal wound.
Beanbag rounds are designed to be less lethal than normal law enforcement weapons. The beanbag is a small fabric pillow filled with lead pellets and usually fired from a 12-gauge shotgun.