BELLE PLAINE, Kan. (AP) — An undersheriff in rural Kansas faces a manslaughter trial Monday for fatally shooting an unarmed man with a homemade beanbag round out of his personal shotgun, a case that comes amid a national reckoning on police violence.
Jury selection will start in the trial of Virgil Brewer, who was with the Barber County Sheriff's Office at the time of the deadly encounter with Steven Myers in October 2017 outside a shed in Sun City, about 300 miles (555 km) from the Kansas City, Kansas.
A civil lawsuit brought by Myers’ family against Brewer and then Barber County Sheriff Lonnie Small was settled in 2020 after county officials agreed to pay $3.5 million.
Brewer’s criminal trial is expected to focus on whether his lack of knowledge and training with the less-lethal munitions amounted to reckless involuntary manslaughter.
Defense attorney David Harger did not respond to messages seeking comment on the case. Brewer has been on unpaid leave since his 2018 arrest. He has been free pending trial.
“The fact of the matter is that it is not going to be a good outcome for anybody, no matter whether or not he gets convicted," Steven Myers' widow, Kristina Myers, told The Associated Press Thursday. "Yes, it will be over in that sense, but this one bad decision has ruined the lives of so many people,”
On the evening of Oct. 6, 2017, Brewer was carrying his personal weapon when he, along with the sheriff and a sheriff’s deputy, responded to a call about a man holding a rifle on a street after an altercation at a local bar.
About five minutes before the fatal shooting, Sheriff Lonnie Small said, “A little luck and he’ll just pass out and die,” a remark captured on the sheriff’s body camera as they searched for Myers. They eventually found him hiding in a shed.
Both Brewer and the deputy later told the Kansas Bureau of Investigation that they could clearly see that Myers was not armed when they confronted him outside the shed, according to the probable cause affidavit obtained by AP.
Body camera footage reviewed by investigators shows Brewer repeatedly told Myers to “get on the ground” before shooting him, while Deputy Mark Suchy gave conflicting commands to “put your hands up now.” Seconds later, Brewer shot Myers with one round.
Brewer told the Kansas Bureau of Investigation during an interview that he was in fear for his and the deputy’s lives when Myers continued to walk toward them, adding that he did not expect the beanbag round to penetrate Myers’ chest.
The deputy’s body camera video showed Myers was not making any aggressive movement at the time Brewer shot him, according to Bureau Agent Brian Carroll in an affidavit in support of the criminal charge against the undersheriff.
“Myers was never told he was under arrest, Myers was never warned that his failure to comply with commands would result in the use of the impending force,” Carroll wrote.
Brewer then discharged his personal weapon at too close of a distance and shot Myers in the chest, a lethal force zone.
Carroll’s affidavit contends that Brewer’s lack of knowledge and training regarding the proper use of less-lethal beanbag munitions recklessly caused Myer’s death. Proper training would have provided critical information about the proper distance to deploy the round and the proper target zone on a person.
Such training would have also informed Brewer about past problems with rectangular-shaped bean bags like the one he used, Carroll wrote. Those are known to penetrate subjects shot with them, and their use has been discontinued for years. The rounds used today are rounded, balloon-shaped bean bags, according to the affidavit.
Before coming to Kansas, Brewer worked in Texas where he was given the beanbag ammunition used the evening of Myers’ death. The affidavit revealed that the Kansas Bureau of Investigation interviewed Travis Martin, the deputy at the Freestone County Sheriff’s Office in Texas who gave Brewer the ammunition.
Martin, who is expected to testify, told the agency that after speaking with the beanbag maker, that type of ammunition would no longer be carried and should not be fired on a person.
Martin told investigators that he “thought he had talked with Brewer about not using the ammunition on a person,” according to the affidavit.
Medical Examiner Timothy Gorrill is also expected to take the witness stand. His autopsy found the cause of death to be a penetrating shotgun bag wound to the trunk with the manner of death ruled a homicide.
Kristina Myers said she has been subpoenaed, adding she hopes to be allowed to watch the trial after her testimony.
“It doesn’t bring him back, but it does give us a sense of justice,” she said. “Everyone, no matter their occupation, should be held responsible for their actions. All actions have consequences.”