One year after Austin police shot a man in the back at a robbery scene, Travis County prosecutors on Monday dismissed the robbery charge against him, prompting the man’s criminal defense lawyer and his mother to criticize the prosecutors for taking so long to right a wrong.
“I think the system failed Gregory Steen,” said David Frank, Steen’ s criminal defense lawyer. “If Gregory Steen had not been shot and in such a sensationalized case, the district attorney would have dismissed this case a long time ago.”
Buddy Meyer, trial chief for the Travis County district attorney’s office, denied that the shooting of Steen, 32, affected the outcome: “That had no bearing on it whatsoever.” A second suspect pleaded guilty to the robbery last week, and Meyer said Monday that other witnesses at the scene said Steen had nothing to do with the robbery.
It was about midnight, Oct. 11, 1997, when more than 20 Austin police officers surrounded a North Austin, Texas house, believing a robbery was in progress. Several people were inside the house, and officers said they were told shots had been fired. As a group of officers stormed through the front door, Officer Keith Sheffield, a six-year veteran, watched the back of the house from a neighbor’s yard, some 60 feet away, during a heavy rainfall.
That’s when Steen jumped out a back window, crashing to the ground, police said. As Steen stood up, Sheffield fired twice. A bullet struck Steen in the kidney area, police said. High on crack cocaine, Steen jumped two, 3-foot chain-link fences before collapsing. Sheffield said in pre-trial hearings that he thought Steen had a weapon. None was ever found.
Police Chief Stan Knee disciplined Sheffield, suspending him for one day for violating a policy against firing a weapon at a fleeing person when the individual poses no threat of death or serious physical harm. The chief then waived the suspension after Sheffield took additional training on deciding when to fire his weapon.
Because Sheffield is white and Steen is African American, the incident and subsequent discipline prompted minority and civil rights groups to call for the creation of a citizens’ board to review complaints against police. Some also said Sheffield should have been fired.
Meyer said it took a year to resolve the robbery case because federal marshals surprised local prosecutors by removing the second suspect, Neeman Roberts, from Travis County jail this spring. Before local prosecutors could get Roberts back, he was in a federal prison in Illinois on an unrelated case, Meyer said.
On Monday, Steen pleaded guilty in a separate case to a reduced charge of resisting arrest. He was sentenced to time already served in jail. But he still faces a six-year prison term for a probation violation on a drug charge. Steen’s defense lawyer said Steen’s probation was revoked several months ago for “giving a dirty urine sample” and failing to report to a probation officer.
Steen’s mother, Carol King of Austin, Texas always maintained that her son did not commit the robbery and is not a violent person. “I really, really feel that the six years is a little harsh,” she said Monday. Steen’s lawyer has filed a motion asking state District Judge Jon Wisser to reduce the sentence.
Steen lost a kidney and part of his bowels in the shooting. His mother pleaded for compassion.
“He’s lost all these vital parts,” she said. “They are going to send him to prison, and he’s not going to be able to fight for himself. That’s the scary part.”
King said she believes authorities pressed the robbery charges for so long to distract attention from the shooting and because Steen has threatened to file a civil lawsuit against the Police Department and Sheffield.
Meyer denied that allegation. Austin police had no comment Monday night, and Sheffield could not be reached.
“I think it’s sad our justice system has to go to such lengths to make themselves look good,” King said. “But it will work out. Justice will prevail.”
Copyright © 1998, The Austin American-Statesman
Laylan Copelin, Case over against man shot by police: Wounding by officer delayed dismissal of robbery charge, lawyer contends., 10-13-1998.