MURRAY – A civil lawsuit against the off-duty Murray Police Department officer who fatally shot an Almo man in November 2019, as well as against former Calloway County Sheriff Sam Steger and the deputy who responded to the call, is currently pending in Calloway Circuit Court.
The initial report from Kentucky State Police Post 1 in Hickory said that on Nov. 2, 2019, Post 1 detectives and the KSP Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT) investigated a fatal officer-involved shooting. KSP said a Calloway County sheriff’s deputy and an officer with MPD responded to Radio Road in the Dexter community regarding a suspicious person. Following an altercation with law enforcement, a male subject, later identified as John Derek Hale, 42, of Almo, was fatally shot. Neither officer was injured during the altercation, KSP said.
On Nov. 7, 2019, KSP released the name of the officer involved, saying it had been Officer Justin Swope. A press release from MPD at the time said that Swope had been placed on paid administrative leave pending an administrative review. The press release also indicated that Swope was off duty at the time of the altercation that resulted in Hale’s death. Since that time, Swope became a detective for the department.
In October 2020, Commonwealth’s Attorney Dennis Foust presented the case to a Calloway County grand jury, which did not indict Swope on any charges. The investigation by KSP was closed early this year, and KSP responded to an open records request from the Ledger & Times in February 2021. Those records said that CCSO Deputy Danny Williams responded to Swope’s residence in Dexter after Swope’s wife called him to tell him that a man, later identified as Hale, was in their front yard “talking to himself and making loud noises.” That’s according to a report from KSP Det. Michael Robichaud, who was called to the scene after Hale was shot.
“It was reported that the suspect had left the scene and was located by the units in a nearby field,” Robichaud wrote in his report. “We were told that the suspect was acting erratically and charged at Officer Swope before pulling a black phone out of a pocket and presenting it as if it were a weapon. That is when Officer Swope discharged his weapon and struck the suspect. The suspect would later be identified as John Hale.”
Hale’s mother, Deborah Hale, acting as administratrix and personal representative of his estate, filed a civil action on Oct. 29, 2020, several days before the one-year anniversary of her son’s death. She and John Hale’s son are listed as the plaintiffs, while Swope, Williams and Steger are listed as the defendants. Swope and Williams are being sued as individuals, while Steger, who resigned as sheriff in August 2020, is being sued in his official capacity. The suit accuses Swope of assault and battery and excessive force in violation of KRS 431.025. It accuses both Swope and Williams of negligence, as well as causing the wrongful death of Hale. Finally, the suit accuses Steger of vicarious liability pursuant to KRS 70.040.
The suit states that, at the time of Hale’s death, Hale was living at home with his parents and it was common for him to walk down the road to various places. It said in taking his walks, he “remained unarmed and was nonthreatening.” After walking through Swope’s neighborhood, the civil action stated, Swope’s wife called her husband and other members of law enforcement about his presence in the neighborhood. After Swope and Williams arrived in the neighborhood, they encountered Hale in a field, the suit said.
“Mr. Hale, at all times leading up to, during and following his interactions with Defendants Swope and Williams, was unarmed and posed no threat,” the suit said. “Mr. Hale was not engaged in criminal activity when approached by Defendants Swope and Williams. Despite the fact that Mr. Hale posed no threat of serious injury or death to the Defendants Swope and Williams, Defendant Swope shot Mr. Hale multiple times, killing him in the process. Defendant Swope’s use of deadly force was unreasonable, grossly negligent, excessive and in violation of clearly established law prohibiting excessive force, assault and battery. At the time shots were fired at Mr. Hale, Hale had his arms in the air.”
“At the time deadly force was used upon Mr. Hale, Hale had committed no crime, posed no immediate threat to the safety of the Defendants and did not actively resist or attempt to evade arrest prior to being repeatedly shot and killed. At the time deadly force was used upon Mr. Hale, there was no legal, constitutional or employment policy authority which provided Defendant Swope with the discretion to use such deadly force under the presented circumstances.”
The suit goes on to detail the reasons Williams is named as a defendant.
“Defendant Williams, at all times relevant herein, had a ministerial obligation to intervene upon observing Defendant Swope’s unreasonable use of force to prevent the use of additional unreasonable force. Defendant Williams had both the opportunity and the ability to intercede in the acts of Defendant Swope in order to prevent Defendant Swope from killing Mr. Hale. Defendant Williams’s failure to intercede to prevent the use of excessive deadly force by Defendant Swope was unreasonable and in violation of his ministerial obligations set forth under law and policy.”
The suit said Steger is named as a defendant because, “The acts and omissions of Defendant, Williams, as alleged above, negligent and grossly negligent, resulting in injury to and subsequently the death of John Hale. Pursuant to KRS 70.040, the Calloway County Sheriff is vicariously liable for all acts and omissions of the deputy sheriff, Danny Williams.”
The suit demands that court award compensatory and punitive damages in amounts to be shown at trial; costs incurred in this action and reasonable attorney fees; prejudgment and post-judgment interest; and “such other and further relief as the court may deem just and proper.”
“As a direct and proximate result of the Defendants’ conduct, John Hale’s Estate has suffered permanent damages, including, but not limited to Hale’s: wrongful death; destruction of power to labor and earn income; pain and suffering and emotional duress; funeral and burial costs; and the loss of consortium suffered by (Hale’s son).”
The defendants’ counsel filed an answer to the complaint on Dec. 9, 2020, listing 16 separate defenses to the allegations from the civil action. The first defense said the plaintiffs’ complaint “fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and therefore should be dismissed.” The third defense in the answer states that the plaintiffs’ and Hale’s “injuries and damages, if any there be, are the direct and proximate result of the actions Plaintiffs’ decedent and of third parties over whom these Defendants have no control.”
The fifth defense states that the plaintiffs’ “claims are barred, in whole or in part, by the doctrine of intervening and/or superseding cause.” In the eighth defense, the defendants “plead affirmatively all sovereign and governmental immunities as may be available to them which, separately or collectively, bar Plaintiffs’ claims herein.”
“At all times mentioned in Plaintiffs’ Complaint, Defendants acted in good faith with an objectively reasonable belief that their actions were lawful,” the 10th defense said. The 11th defense states, “Plaintiffs’ Complaint is barred by reason of the absolute and/or qualified immunities provided to the Defendants.”
The 12th defense states, “Before, during, and on the occurrence referred to in the complaint, Plaintiffs’ decedent negligently failed to exercise ordinary care for his own safety, which negligence caused and contributed to his damages, if any, and injuries, if any, and any judgment rendered in favor of Plaintiffs should be reduced in accordance with the law of comparative negligence.” The 13th defense states, “Plaintiffs’ claims against Defendants are barred by the Doctrines of Official Immunity, Qualified Official Immunity, Sovereign Immunity, and/or Governmental Immunity.” The 14th defense also pleaded the Doctrine of Legislative Immunity “as a complete defense to Plaintiffs’ Complaint.”
Deborah Hale and her grandson are being represented by attorneys Gary Haverstock of Haverstock, Bell & Pitman in Murray and Sam Aguiar of Sam Aguiar Injury Lawyers of Louisville. According to a news report from the Murray State News, Aguiar is a 2000 Murray High School graduate and Murray State University alumnus and was involved in the wrongful death lawsuit against the Louisville Metro Police Department that resulted in a $12 million settlement from the city for the family of Breonna Taylor after she was fatally shot by police at her apartment.
The defendants are represented by attorney Stacey Blankenship of Paducah’s Keuler, Kelly, Hutchins, Blankenship & Sigler law firm.
Calloway Circuit Court Clerk Linda Avery said no hearings are currently scheduled for the case. Reached by phone on Wednesday, Blankenship said the case is currently going through the discovery phase, which can take quite a while as attorneys for both sides examine all available records related to the suit. Haverstock said he did not wish to comment on pending litigation, but he did say attorneys had not yet begun to take depositions yet.