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Court denies wrongful death trial for mother of man killed by Kansas City police: 'I'm hurt. I'm angry'

073121_Narene Stokes BBQ.jpg
Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
Narene Stokes, right, speaks at the 8th annual memorial for her son, Ryan, on July 31, 2021. Sheila Albers, an Overland Park mother who also lost a son in a shooting by a police officer, is next to her. "No momma wants to hear what we heard," Narene Stokes said.

The decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is a “blow” to the family of Ryan Stokes, 24, who was shot in the back while complying with police in 2013 after a foot chase in the Power & Light District.

A federal appeals court has ruled that “despite the tragic circumstances,” a Kansas City police officer who fatally shot a young Black man did not violate his rights and is entitled to immunity from a lawsuit.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled that the officer “had been negligent at most” when he killed 24-year-old Ryan Stokes, so the family is not entitled to a trial seeking damages for his wrongful death.

“Official immunity shields Missouri police officers from liability for their discretionary decisions, including when they draw and fire a weapon, even if they are negligent,” the court stated.

Stokes was killed near the Power & Light District on July 28, 2013, after being falsely accused of stealing a drunk white man’s cellphone. Stokes was being chased when Officer William Thompson, a 21-year veteran, shot him two times in the back, a KCUR investigation found. Stokes was not armed and he was complying with another officer in a parking lot near the Sprint Center.

On Wednesday, Ryan Stokes’ mother, Narene, said the appeal court's decision was “a blow.” She said she wasn't sure how the family will move forward with a legal case against the Kansas City Policee Department and the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, which oversees the department.

"I'm hurt. I'm angry. I'm mad. I don't understand why they won't let us have a trial, why they won't be fair,” Narene Stokes said. “They want to block us with this qualified immunity.”

"Help me understand how you can take a man's life, shoot him in the back, him with no gun, and say it's OK?" she said.

Qualified immunity protects government officials from lawsuits alleging that an official violated someone’s rights and only allows claims where the official violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right.

The court's decision upholds a February 2020 ruling by a federal judge finding that Thompson used "reasonable" deadly force when he killed Stokes.

Although he was chasing Stokes for the minor crime of allegedly stealing a cellphone — and didn’t give Stokes any order to stop — the appeals court said that Thompson’s only choice was to “use deadly force or face the possibility that Stokes might shoot a fellow officer.”

“Nor has the family shown that Officer Thompson acted in bad faith or with malice,” the court stated.

A KCPD spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

At the time of the shooting, the KCPD said that Stokes was a thief with a gun who had engaged in a standoff with police when he refused to drop his weapon and failed to comply with orders. The department also told his mother that Ryan Stokes was shot in the chest.

The first KCPD officer to reach Stokes, Daniel Straub, gave sworn testimony against the department’s false narrative of that night. Straub testified in a 2017 deposition for the Stokes family's wrongful death lawsuit that Stokes did not have a gun and was complying with his orders. Straub has said he was pushed out of the KCPD in 2019.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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