Report of the Maine Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by State Police Trooper on December 12, 2013, in Hollis

Synopsis: On December 12, 2013, John A. Knudsen, age 61, was shot and killed outside his home in Hollis by State Police Trooper Tyler Stevenson. The Office of the Attorney General has investigated the incident to determine whether the officer was acting in self-defense or in defense of someone else at the time he used deadly force.

Facts:

On the morning of Thursday, December 12, 2013, the Regional Communications Center in Gray answered a 911 call from a Hollis woman reporting that her husband, John A. Knudsen, was pointing a handgun at his head and threatening to kill himself. The woman reported that Mr. Knudsen had been drinking heavily since early morning and that he was despondent over a recent leg injury that had left him physically impaired. A few minutes into the conversation with the dispatcher, the wife reported that Mr. Knudsen had gone out to an attached porch, discharged a round from the handgun, and come back inside the residence. The dispatcher overheard Mr. Knudsen say he "had to see if it worked, and it does."[1]

The dispatcher repeatedly instructed Ms. Knudsen to leave the residence. Ms. Knudsen continued to converse with the dispatcher as state troopers made their way from various locations to the Knudsen residence on the Little Falls Road in Hollis.[2] Nine minutes into the 911 call, the dispatcher heard Mr. Knudsen telling his wife, "the next person who comes in this driveway, I'm going to shoot one, do you understand?!" When his wife said she did not understand, Mr. Knudsen stated, "the next bullet goes through my head," adding "I'm not going to kill you . . . because I don't have a reason." He repeated the threat that he would shoot anyone who entered the driveway.

The dispatcher finally convinced Ms. Knudsen to leave the residence. However, she left the cordless telephone handset in the residence with the line open. About five minutes later, the dispatcher heard tones associated with someone pushing buttons on the phone. The dispatcher was able to engage in an extended conversation with Mr. Knudsen, with the dispatcher trying to persuade Mr. Knudsen to relinquish the handgun and turn himself over to police officers outside the residence. By noon, it became apparent that Mr. Knudsen was unwilling to comply with the repeated requests to disarm and go outside. The State Police Tactical Team was dispatched, as well as members of the State Police Crisis Negotiation Team. By coincidence, several members of the negotiation team were attending training nearby in Sanford; this group included Lt. Jackie Theriault, who became the primary negotiator.

While the dispatcher continued to converse with Mr. Knudsen over the phone, members of the Tactical Team, including Trooper Tyler Stevenson, arrived outside the residence. Trooper Stevenson, armed with a rifle, took up a position near another trooper, which was later determined to be 266 feet from the Knudsen residence. Other team members established a perimeter around the residence so as to contain Mr. Knudsen in the immediate vicinity in case he left his house.

In the meantime, Lt. Theriault spoke with Mr. Knudsen by telephone while she was still in Sanford. The conversation continued while Lt. Theriault was enroute to Hollis and after her arrival outside the Knudsen residence. Shortly after 2 p.m., Mr. Knudsen, who had become quite agitated, spoke of throwing his gun or "guns" out a window. He also spoke of his intention to discharge a round from his weapon to demonstrate that he was actually armed. Lt. Theriault repeatedly instructed him not to fire the weapon as she tried to persuade Mr. Knudsen to disarm and come out of the residence. Mr. Knudsen was in telephone contact with the dispatcher and Lt. Theriault for a total of approximately three hours during the incident. Mr. Knudsen went out onto the enclosed porch where Trooper Stevenson saw him in an open exterior doorway armed with a revolver. Mr. Knudsen held a phone to his ear and pointed the revolver downward as Lt. Theriault continued to talk with him on the portable phone.

Trooper Stevenson then saw Mr. Knudsen take a step into the threshold of the door and raise the gun, pointing it directly at the area where Trooper Stevenson and Trooper David Coflesky were located. In response to these actions, Trooper Stevenson fired a round at Mr. Knudsen and Mr. Knudsen discharged his weapon in the direction of the two troopers. Trooper Stevenson fired a second round and saw Mr. Knudsen fall onto his back. The second round struck Mr. Knudsen.[3] Emergency medical personnel were immediately on scene to administer treatment, but Mr. Knudsen died from the gunshot wound.

Detectives from the Office of the Attorney General went to the scene in Hollis to conduct a thorough investigation, assisted by evidence technicians and detectives from the State Police. The Chief Medical Examiner performed an autopsy and determined that Mr. Knudsen died as a result of a single gunshot wound to the chest. Mr. Knudsen's blood-alcohol content at the time of his death was 0.32%. The results of an extensive forensic investigation of the scene and the post mortem examination were consistent with the accounts given independently by various officers and witnesses.

Analysis and Conclusion:

The Attorney General is charged by law with investigating any incident in which a law enforcement officer uses deadly force while acting in the performance of the officer's duties. The sole purpose of the Attorney General's investigation of the incident in Hollis was to determine whether self-defense or the defense of others, as defined by law, was reasonably generated by the facts so as to preclude criminal prosecution of Trooper Stevenson. The review did not include an analysis of potential civil liability, of whether any administrative action is warranted, or of whether the use of deadly force could have been averted. Under Maine law, for any person, including a law enforcement officer, to be justified in using deadly force in self-defense or the defense of others, two requirements must be met. First, the person must actually and reasonably believe that deadly force is imminently threatened against the person or against someone else, and; second, the person must actually and reasonably believe that deadly force is necessary to counter that imminent threat.

Whether the use of force is reasonable is based on the totality of the particular circumstances and must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, allowing for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation. The analysis requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each case, including the severity of the crime threatened or committed and whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of others.

Attorney General Janet T. Mills has concluded that at the time Trooper Stevenson shot Mr. Knudsen, Trooper Stevenson reasonably believed that unlawful deadly force was imminently threatened against him and against Trooper Coflesky and other troopers or persons within range of the weapon discharged by Mr. Knudsen. It was reasonable for Trooper Stevenson to believe it necessary to use deadly force to protect himself and the other officers from deadly force. Trooper Stevenson acted in the defense of himself and others who were within range of and in the line of fire of Mr. Knudsen's gun.

[1] The handgun was later determined to be a five-shot .357 magnum revolver that was fully loaded with .38 caliber ammunition.

[2] The Little Falls Road in Hollis is also known as State Route 35, which intersects with U.S. Route 202. Route 202 is a major throughway a short distance from the Knudsen residence. Two other residences, a veterinary clinic, and a public library are all in the immediate area. On December 12, 2013, there was a substantial snow pack and the temperature hovered in the mid to lower teens.

[3] The three gunshots were discharged over a span of 2.6 seconds.

 

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