Everyone knows George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, but have you heard the little-known tragic story of Dontrell Stephens?
His death this past Sunday draws attention to the lengths some law enforcement officials will go to deter justice, even if it involves an innocent man who was shot and paralyzed by police and prevented from collecting on a $22 million settlement.
On Sept. 13, 2013, Dontrell Stephens left his home to take a routine bicycle ride through his West Palm Beach, Florida, community. The then-20-year-old man was pulled over by Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Adam Lin for a bicycle infraction. Lin got out of his patrol car and within four seconds started shooting at Stephens, who had stepped off his bike with his cellphone in his right hand. Stephens complied, but Officer Lin mistook Stephens’ cellphone for a gun and shot at him four times, hitting him once, severing his spinal cord, and leaving him paralyzed. Stephens was unarmed during the entire altercation.
For the next three years, Stephens fought for his life in federal court. A jury awarded him a $22.4 million settlement and Stephens believed his life was finally changing for the better. He deserved the money and without it, he couldn’t afford to pay his hospital and therapy bills as his health continued to deteriorate.
Attorneys for Officer Lin filed an appeal and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the guilty verdict and ordered a new trial for Lin. This meant Stephens would get no money and have to start his fight with the courts all over again. A fight he wasn’t sure his body could handle, but he pressed on.
In June of 2020, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a $6 million settlement for Stephens. It miraculously passed the Republican-controlled legislature despite Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw admittedly being against paying Stephens. Sheriff Bradshaw thought of Stephens as a drug dealer who didn’t deserve anything.
During the vote for the settlement, police tried to show photos of Stephens holding money and drugs on his social media account. They also brought up his two cocaine possession charges and that he sold drugs to an undercover officer.
Despite the efforts to discredit Stephens, he was ultimately awarded $4.5 million in a trust fund and $1.5 million towards outstanding unpaid medical bills; a far cry from the $22 million he won in federal court.
Dontrell Stephens was finally victorious in his fight with the Palm Beach County Police, but I took a serious toll on his body. Stephens, who never walked again died a year after Gov. Ron DeSantis approved his settlement. Dontrell Stephens was 28 years old and nearly homeless. He was also the father figure to his brothers who will now have to raise themselves.