Friday, September 3, 2004

Police homicide ruled non-criminal

Coroner?s inquest jury votes unanimously

Express Staff Writer

After less than an hour of deliberation Wednesday, a six-member jury in a coroner?s inquest into the May shooting death of Thomas Patrick Algiers by Blaine County Sgt. Curtis Miller ruled that the police shooting of the long time Ketchum inhabitant was not caused by criminal means.

The inquest was completed over the course of two days.

Algiers, 46, was killed near a campsite in the dense woods west of the bike path and south of the River Run Lodge parking lot shortly before 3 a.m. May 16. Police were responding to a 911 call made from the lodge by Daniel D. Hunt at about 2 a.m.

Hunt, 46, is scheduled to stand trial in October on charges of aggravated battery and aggravated assault against Algiers prior to the police standoff last spring.

Speaking under oath at the inquest, Miller and Blaine County Deputy Dale Stocking said when Algiers was found in the woods near where Hunt said he was camping, Algiers refused to drop a knife he was carrying.

The first day of the inquest was dedicated to presenting testimony from police officers and paramedics who described the events chronologically follow-ing Hunt?s 911 call.

Hunt said in a prepared statement at the inquest that he used the machete to defend himself after Algiers attacked him. The voluntary statement allowed by his attorney Stephen Thompson will not be admitted at Hunt?s trial. Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg, who presided over the inquest in place of Blaine County Coroner Russ Mikel, allowed no cross-examination of Hunt, a condition agreed to before Hunt read his statement.

The first piece of evidence presented at the hearing was a recording of the 911 call. Hunt can be heard telling the dispatcher that he had been in a fight with his friend and that his friend might be dead.

After the first witnesses had given their Tuesday, Sonnenberg reiterated to the jury that they had the power to ask any questions during the inquest. He also said that at anytime the jury could recall witnesses or subpoena others for clarification.

However, the jury seemed relatively satisfied with Idaho Attorney General Jay Rosenthal?s presentation of witnesses and evidence. Rosenthal represented Blaine County at the inquest to preclude a perceived conflict of interest for the county prosecuting attorney. The jury scribbled questions intermittently, which the bailiff handed to Sonnenberg. The coroner frequently consulted with Rosenthal before reading the questions.

At one point when a juror tried to ask a witness what he thought Algiers was thinking at the time of the shooting, Sonnenberg rejected the question stating, ?There is not a person in this room who could know what Algiers was thinking.? However, on Wednesday when a friend of Algiers, Ross Youngman, was put on the stand and asked to give a character description, Youngman speculated that Algiers was an alcoholic in a downward spiral with a death wish. He suggested Algiers was hoping the police would shoot him, something he referred to as ?blue suicide.?

Another witness, Ralph Scheu testified that Algiers had told him that twice before he had backed officers into the river with a knife because they were bothering him about where he was camping.

Police and first responder testimony on Tuesday laid out the events leading up to the shooting and the final efforts to revive Algiers. He was pronounced dead at about 4 a.m. on the morning of May 16.

Considered an independent review of the facts in the case, the inquest was intended to make clear to the public that police are held accountable for their actions. Sonnenberg explained that the burden on the jury was to determine the who, what, when, where and how of Algiers? death. The jury was also charged with determining under the law governing the use of deadly force by a police officer whether Miller was legally justified in killing Algiers.

Blaine County Prosecutor Jim Thomas and Sheriff Walt Femling requested the inquest at the end of May even though a multi-county task force investiga-tion found the homicide justified.

Miller did not face any criminal charges. Had the jury found that the use of force was criminal, the case would have been turned over to Rosenthal, who would have had to decide whether or not to press criminal charges against Miller, Sonnenberg said.

Rosenthal decided which witnesses and what evidence should be made available to the jury to help them make their determination.

On Tuesday afternoon Miller broke down in tears and held his head as he got to the point of describing how he shot Algiers. Sonnenberg called for a 15-minute break to allow Miller to regain his composure. Stocking was also emotionally shaken as he described the same series of events that occurred after the officers found Algiers crouched in a thicket of willows. The officers described a standoff with Algiers, testifying that as Algiers moved out of the thicket, Stocking told Miller that Algiers was carrying a knife. They said that, in the dark, both of their flashlights were failing. They described using a third flash-light--obtained from a Ketchum officer--to keep Algiers in view as they tried to get him to drop the knife.

?He did not comply with your commands?? Rosenthal asked.

?Not once,? said Stocking. ?I tracked the knife through the whole thing. That became my purpose ... he just kept moving forward.?

A rusty, Old Timer pocketknife with its two blades extended was presented as evidence. Stocking described Algiers as lunging at Miller, the knife firmly in hand.

Using a pointer Stocking described the final movements of the three men before Miller shot Algiers.

?Tom?s bearing down on Curtis like I?m not even on the planet,? Stocking said. ?Is he going to stop? They always have. They always do. What are we going to do??

According to the autopsy report described by Dr. Glen Grobin, Algiers was shot once in the chest near the left nipple. The bullet hit the bottom of the heart and lodged in the left side of Algiers? back between the ribs and the hipbone. A second bullet went through his left hand, a sweatshirt and grazed his torso.

Pictures of the multiple machete wounds to Algiers? head were not reviewed, but Grobin did go over a diagram of them.

Sonnenberg asked how the head lacerations would have affected Algiers over time.

?Would that have incapacitated him?? Sonnenberg asked. Grobin said no.

?(These are) wounds you could easily have stopped bleeding yourself,? Grobin said. ?I don?t think he lost two liters of blood from wounds to his head.?

But, Grobin also said Algiers was still bleeding when he was shot, over an hour after Hunt?s 911 call.

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