Murder a Kid, Plant a Gun — Take a Vacation

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Victor Steen, a 17-year-old high school senior from West Pensacola, Florida, was murdered while riding a bicycle home from a post-Homecoming Game party last October 3rd.  His murderer, Jerald Ard, ran him down in an automobile. According to eyewitnesses, Ard dragged the victim a considerable distance, nearly severing his body in half.

Ard had endangered other drivers and pedestrians as he veered into the wrong lane and even drove onto a sidewalk in pursuit of Victor, repeatedly attempting to shoot the teenager with a lethal weapon. After he ran down the youngster, Ard tried to cover up his crime by planting a gun on the victim.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ard is a police officer. Nor should it be considered unusual that he will suffer no significant punishment for his act of vehicular homicide: After it was established last April that Ard’s actions had exposed Victor “to unreasonable risk of harm and injury” — gee, ya think? — Capt. Jay Worley suspended Ard for two weeks without pay.

In a coroner’s inquest last February, Escambia County Judge John Simon blamed the victim for his death.

“Mr. Steen desired to avoid apprehension on October 3, 2009. That desire led to Mr. Steen’s ill-advised decision to ignore a lawful command.”

What about Ard’s reckless driving? According to former police officer Dave Klinger, a use-of-force expert who examined the case, Ard was driving with “one hand on the steering wheel and looking out the window when he [fired] the Taser, which [meant he didn't] have complete control over the car.” This not only led to Victor’s death, but placed other lives at risk.

Judge Simon says that “Officer Ard violated no traffic laws in light of the fact that he was actively pursuing Mr. Steen.”

All of this depends, of course, on the assumption that Ard had just cause to be pursuing the 17-year-old — and he’s never told a straight story about his reasons for doing so. He initially claimed to have seen the young man at a construction site and suspected that he may have stolen something. After an eyewitness testified that Victor had passed the site without stopping, Ard changed his story, claiming that there was no reflector or light on the bike Victor was riding.

Given Ard’s equivocal description of his reasons for pursuing Victor, he clearly had no “lawful” right to detain the young man, let alone assault him with a Taser — thereby directly precipitating the victim’s violent death when he lost control of his bike.

Dashcam video recorded by one of the police cars that arrived on the scene showed Ard unlocking the passenger side of his cruiser and retrieving an object, then crawling under the car. He stayed there for more than a half-minute. When paramedics arrived two minutes later, they found a silver-and-black 9mm semiautomatic handguns in one of the victim’s pockets.

“Lab tests showed the gun had been wiped clean,” reports the St. Petersburg Times. “No fingerprints were on it — not Victor’s, not anyone’s.” Either the mortally wounded teenager — despite being nearly cut in half by Ard’s cruiser — managed to wipe the gun clean in the seconds before he died, or Ard planted a “drop gun” to provide a retroactive pretext for his pursuit of the teenager.

After seeing the video, an investigator for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement asked Ard if he had planted the gun. The subject was promptly dropped when Ard denied that he had done so.

According to Klinger, Ard’s use of a Taser in these circumstances was impermissible: “You don’t Taser people in circumstances that increase the likelihood of injury unless they’re a suspect for something like rape or murder.”

Assuming that Ard’s second story is correct, Victor Steen was suspected of what Judge Simon called a “non-criminal” infraction — hardly the kind of thing that justifies the use of lethal force. However, Judge Simon placed his imprimatur on Ard’s lethal actions by insisting that Steen precipitated the chase by engaging in “unprovoked flight” from Ard, which created a “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”

This neatly closes the circular argument: Ard didn’t commit a crime by murdering Victor Steen, because the young man — a mere Mundane, after all —  made a criminal of himself by fleeing the armed stranger who eventually killed him for no reason.

2:36 pm on August 9, 2010