Was justice served by the recent trial in federal court of the man who killed Kendra James? A closer look at the proceedings raises serious questions about how much the facts decided the decision to exonerate Scott McCollister.
By Diane Lane Woodcock
It’s hardly news that Officer Scott McCollister recently managed to convince a jury of eight in a federal courtroom that he did not use excessive or unreasonable force when he shot 21-year-old Kendra James during a traffic stop over two years ago.
It’s not new information, but unless you attended all six days of the wrongful death and civil rights trial brought by James’ family, you may not be aware of certain items that came up — some of them troubling.
The single bullet fired by the 29-year-old McCollister killed the unarmed James in the early morning hours of May 5, 2003. Officer Rick Bean had pulled over the rental car in which she rode with her friends, Darnell White and Terrol White. James had an arrest warrant pending for attempted possession of a controlled substance (a misdemeanor) and was known by Bean to be a flight risk. After the police got the two men out of the car, James hopped over the backseat to the driver’s seat, and allegedly put the car in drive. McCollister claims that he had 80 percent of this body weight inside the car, trying to pull her out.
McCollister told the jury, “I drew my gun as the car shuddered.” The defense showed a video re-enactment — featuring only the car and McCollister in casual clothes — that displayed him yelling, “Get out of the fucking car!” On the stand, he claimed his left foot was inside the car with his left knee resting up against the driver’s seat as James began to lean towards and climb over to the front passenger seat. McCollister explained that the car moved forward causing him to fall backwards and, afraid he would be sucked under the car and run over, he fired one shot to prevent James from driving off.
Note that the car, as determined by forensic experts, rolled approximately 260 feet after the shot that killed James and that McCollister admitted under oath, “I never saw her driving the car,” and that he never saw her put the car in gear or step on the gas pedal. McCollister portrayed his deadly force as reasonable despite stating, "I didn't know where I was when the shot was fired," and "it was not a series of decisions with a thought process;" that she did not hit himor try to hurt him; and that he didn't know whether his bullet even hit her.
The jury must have found former cheerleader mcCollister quite convincing, because the defense presented no evidence that corroborated his version of events including the testimony of his fellow officers, Bean and Reynolds, one of McCollister’s closest friends, whom he dines with every Tuesday evening, including the day after the shooting. Before the shot was fired, Reynolds stood directly to the right of McCollister in the 33-inch-wide driver’s side doorway of the car, holding a Taser, looking for a clear shot at James. Bean stood approximately two feet behind them, slightly to their right. Reynolds and Bean testified that even though they stood closely beside McCollister, they did not see him inside the car, did not see his foot in the car, nor did they see him fall.
Contrary to McCollister’s story, the other officers, two independent witnesses, Brician Williams and Meilani Carruthers, and the driver of the car, Terrol White, testified that McCollister and Reynolds “stumbled” along with the car as it started to slowly roll down the street. Reynolds testified that he recalled seeing James’ hand on the steering wheel — a recollection that escaped him during his three prior recounts, including an interview with police detectives shortly after the shooting. Bean and Reynolds testified that they perceived no deadly threat from James.
Both sides of the civil rights lawsuit hired forensic and law enforcement experts and used exhibits including diagrams of the incident, the autopsy and toxicology reports on James, and a mock-up of the car involved in the stop. The defense paid for the model car, or rather, the left front section of a car similar to the rental car. Curiously, the lawyers for the James family used the model much more than did the defense.
The lawyers for the James family used the actual rental car in a demonstration in the basement of the federal courthouse and in a test by forensic scientist Dr. Raymond Grimsbo that was videotaped and played during the trial. Dr. Grimsbo’s test clearly showed that the car could have traveled at idle speed, three miles per hour, to the location of its final resting spot — approximately 275 feet from the initial stop — during the incident. This test refuted testimony by defense witness Gaylan Warren, a forensic microscopist, and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office report on earlier tests conducted, that the car needed some acceleration to make it that far down the road — at least eight miles per hour. Obviously, the defense needed to imply that the car had been going fast, and that someone besides McCollister made it accelerate; otherwise, there would be no risk for McCollister if he was indeed losing his balance inside the car as he claimed to be.
Evidence appears to refute that claim, though. Experts for both sides performed gun residue tests which look for particles that eject whenever a gun is fired. Both sides agreed that no particles were found inside the car, on the car door, or on James’ jacket, although the bullet hole went through her jacket on the lower left backside of her abdomen. Interestingly, the test by Dan Alessio, Oregon State Police forensic scientist, resulted in a finding that the gun muzzle had to be at least 30 inches away from James at the time it was fired. Dr. Grimsbo’s test showed that McCollister’s gun barrel had to be at least four feet away from James.
The defense tried to pooh-pooh Grimsbo’s test by pointing out that he used cotton material samples rather than nylon material similar to her jacket. When asked (unfortunately, off the witness stand) why he didn’t use the same type of material, Dr. Grimsbo, who has more than 30 years experience in forensic science, stated that the type of material didn’t matter because the purpose of the test was not to see if particles burned into the jacket, but rather to determine the distance between the gun barrel and the test material at which residue particles no longer exist. Alessio and Grimsbo both used McCollister’s gun and the same type of ammo issued by the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) for the test. Grimsbo said that his results differed from Alessio’s because Alessio took small pieces from the sleeve of James’ jacket: Gun residue comes out in a cone shape pattern, and so particles in the outer radius of the cone wouldn’t show up on small pieces of fabric.
Ken Katsaris, a sworn officer from Florida whose long career has involved defensive tactics training, claimed that McCollister did exactly what he should have during the stop — that he did not place himself at peril by getting inside the car. He opined that the PPB’s findings that McCollister used poor judgment and placed himself in a risky position, resulting in the need to use deadly force, were unjustified. He claimed that Portland officers were trained to shoot as they fall and so McCollister’s shot was not at all reckless but rather good police procedure.
According to retired Portland police officer Damon Woodcock, such training does not occur either in Portland or at the police academy. Katsaris teaches a course entitled Street Survival, offered to officers as an elective that Woodcock attended twice. That course covers shooting while falling; however, the main lesson instructs officers on how to survive when they’re in a violent fight for their lives with armed subjects. The PPB emphasizes officer safety and so does not train officers as Katsaris claims.
Lawyers and experts for the James family argued that rather than taking the time to shoot James to try to stop the car — which wasn’t successful since the car kept moving — McCollister could have chosen to regain his balance or step back out of the car, if he was actually inside the car. Although the car did not stop after he shot James, he apparently managed to successfully get out of the car without falling. One of the experts for the defense explained action/reaction time and how regaining balance requires 100 percent focus. If that’s the case, why was McCollister able to focus on pulling off a shot rather than on regaining his balance? If he was truly out of balance — somehow heading backwards and downwards despite the car door directly behind him, Officer Reynolds right next to him, Officer Bean close by and the car moving slowly — how did he manage to get out okay with his attention diverted? McCollister still claims that he doesn’t know if he fell or not and that his foot might have gotten run over by the car. Does he seriously believe that he could fall and have a part of his body run over by the car and no one near him would notice?
No one attacked the part of McCollister’s theory that the car’s sudden movement would make him fall backwards into the street instead of further into the car. But it seems more likely that if he had 80 percent of his body weight in the car, as he claimed, the lurch of the car would pull the rest of his body into the car, not push it out — a theory supported by the defense when it claimed the driver’s side door closed shut with the forward momentum of the car after James was shot.
The defense flaunted the toxicology report that showed the level of cocaine James had in her system. Note that the medical report indicated James as a healthy, “well nourished,” normally developed female. McCollister’s attorney told all about her past drug usage, former arrests (no violent crimes) and troubled childhood as if that made it okay for McCollister”s use of deadly force. The defense didn’t bother to mention that James’ mother, Shirley, successfully stopped abusing drugs and there was no reason to believe that Kendra couldn’t have eventually done the same thing. Of course, demonizing people is a successful way for military and police departments to train their members to hurt and kill people.
The defense repeatedly painted the following scenario: James, leaning over the center console towards the passenger side of the car, completely out of control, crazed with drugs, with 80 percent of McCollister’s 220 pounds on top of her, somehow had enough presence of mind and control to put the car into drive and step on the gas. Equally troubling, they kept claiming that the cocaine in her system rendered her “supercharged.” However, according to experts, cocaine users merely believe they are stronger — they do not actually gain more strength. Even though the car cannot be engaged into drive unless a button is pushed on the gearshift lever simultaneously with the brake pedal being depressed, it seems possible that the car could have been accidentally knocked into gear. Right before McCollister’s shot, Reynolds deployed his Taser, hitting James in the left shoulder. Although the autopsy indicated no burn marks on her skin, one of the experts stated that she must have felt the 50,000 volts of electricity to some degree. With James’ upper body lying on her right side and her legs and feet extended towards the pedals, it may be possible that her body stiffened with the voltage, thereby depressing the brake and slamming against the gear shift button. It’s even possible that McCollister’s frantic attempts to grab at her put the car into gear.
You might think in the spirit of fair process that McCollister’s mistakes as a public employee would be presented during trial. No such luck — while the attorneys for both sides most likely had McCollister’s complaint and training records, none of that information was admissible during the trial. From a credible source, though, it appears that there may have been “some issues” during McCollister’s training period as well as a significant complaint history.
McCollister’s discipline report for this shooting indicates not only that he used poor judgment, and that PPB Chief Derrick Foxworth — assistant chief at that time — recommended firing him, but also that Reynolds tried to nudge him away from the car doorway so that he could have a clear shot at James with the Taser. The report indicates: “Officer Reynolds was shoulder to shoulder with you...equipped with a Taser and prepared to deploy it....However, your placement inside the vehicle as well as the size of the car door opening did not provide enough room for a desirable or effective Taser deployment.”
Litigation expert Donald Van Blaricom, with more than 29 years in law enforcement, including 11 years as a police chief, stated that according to PPB’s lesson plan on extracting subjects from their cars during traffic stops, an officer should never enter a vehicle because the plan instructs officers to “avoid over-physical commitment.” Van Blaricom, who testifies for both plaintiffs and defendants depending on whose “fact pattern” he agrees with, could not make sense of McCollister’s actions.
Van Blaricom also served on the PPB Chief’s Use of Force Committee. When asked his opinion about the shooting, he stated on the witness stand, “It was unnecessary, unreasonable, and shouldn’t have happened.”
So why did the jury believe McCollister? It’s hard to say, but here’s some food for thought: Federal marshals excluded the public from the jury selection the first day of the trial by claiming that the pool of 70 potential jurors left no room for anyone else in the courtroom, which remained locked during the process. Federal civil court procedure allows for jury members to come from a wider jurisdiction, including rural areas, than in state trials. There were only three African Americans in the jury pool and none of them was selected.
The City spent over $2 million defending McCollister, who suffered only 900 hours of unpaid suspension for making poor choices that took a life. McCollister is currently fighting the suspension and if he wins, will be paid for the suspended hours. According to the PPB’s discipline report, if the Bureau required him to take any training and/or counseling, he would be paid for those hours even though they would be considered part of the suspension.
Was justice served? Certainly not for the James family, first bereft of the young woman’s life and then unable to receive any compensation that would have helped provide for her five-year-old son Melvin. Certainly not for the Portland community which is left with a police officer who uses poor judgment back on the streets.
Diane Lane Woodcock is a long-time police accountability activist, steering committee member of the Alliance for Police and Community Accountability, paralegal and writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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Last Updated: August 18, 2005