Historic trial to begin over man who died in Omaha police custody

Historic trial to begin over man who died in Omaha police custody
Former Omaha Police Officer Scotty Payne heads to courtroom 411 in the Douglas County Courthouse for a hearing on Wednesday, February 07, 2018. He is charged in the death of Zachary Bearheels. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

It’s a trial 18 months in the making — and it promises to be historic.

This week and next, former Omaha Police Officer Scotty Payne will be on trial in connection with the June 2017 death of Zachary Bearheels, a mentally ill Oklahoma man who died after a struggle with police officers in which he was shocked 12 times with a Taser and punched 13 times.

Payne, 29, is one of the first Omaha police officers to face criminal charges out of a grand jury investigation into a death. Two Omaha police officers involved in deadly 1997 and 2000 shootings initially faced charges, but those were later dismissed. Only about a third of police officers charged in on-duty deaths from 2005 to 2017 were convicted, though some cases are still pending, Bowling Green State University professor Philip Stinson has told CNN.

That said, Payne’s trial comes as police officers are facing increasing scrutiny over on-duty deaths. In Texas, a white, suburban Dallas police officer was convicted this summer of murder after shooting and killing a black teenager in a car that was driving away from him.

In Chicago, a white police officer was convicted in October of second-degree murder after shooting a knife-wielding teen multiple times in the street.

In South Carolina, a white police officer was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting an unarmed black motorist in the back and killing him.

The Payne case has different racial dynamics — and different charges. Payne is black; Bearheels was American Indian.

Special prosecutor Corey O’Brien of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office will attempt to prove that Payne committed second-degree assault and unlawful weapon use by deploying his Taser 12 times — at times while Bearheels sat slumped against the rear tire of an Omaha police cruiser. Both charges are felonies.

A second black officer, Ryan McClarty, is awaiting trial on a misdemeanor charge of third-degree assault for punching Bearheels 13 times in the head after Bearheels freed his hand from a handcuff.

The ordeal began after Bearheels was kicked off a bus that had been traveling from South Dakota to his home in Oklahoma.

He spent more than 24 hours wandering Omaha streets — eventually ending up at a Bucky’s convenience store at 60th and Center Streets. An employee called 911 after Bearheels lingered outside the store and refused to leave.

Two female officers initially succeeded in getting Bearheels into the back of a cruiser. They and Bearheels’ mother talked about how he was bipolar and schizophrenic and may have stopped taking his medications. They hatched a plan to take him to a downtown bus station and send him the rest of the way to Oklahoma.

But as an officer opened a cruiser door to put on his seat belt, Bearheels got out of the car and walked away. A melee ensued. Officers Payne and McClarty not only shocked and punched him, but they carried him back to the cruiser, hoisting him by his ponytail. After the shocks, Bearheels went into cardiac arrest.

A county coroner said she could not conclude that Bearheels died from the Taser shocks. In turn, grand jurors declined to charge Payne with manslaughter — instead charging him with second-degree assault. The two charges carry the same penalty.

Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer fired both officers, who are appealing their terminations.

Payne’s defense attorney, Steve Lefler, is expected to point out the chaos of the night and is expected to question whether Payne’s actions were unreasonable considering that chaos.

Jury selection is expected to take a day or two.