State trooper not guilty in man’s fatal shooting

The anticipated trial of a Colorado State Patrol trooper in the shooting death of 31-year-old Jason Kemp might be summed up in one prosecution question to a defense witness — at least from the prosecution’s point of view.

“You’ve really been training Denver police officers that it’s OK to kick in the doors of non-felony traffic suspects?” District Attorney Pete Hautzinger asked Michael O’Neill, a retired 31-year veteran of the Denver Police Department.

In a widely watched verdict that centered on arguments about Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure, with ramifications felt throughout the Colorado State Patrol, a Mesa County jury on April 19 returned not-guilty verdicts on charges of criminally negligent homicide, first-degree criminal trespass and prohibited use of a weapon against Trooper Ivan “Gene” Lawyer in connection with Kemp’s death on July 20, 2010, at 103 Glade Park Road, Unit B.

The jury deadlocked on two counts, which Hautzinger refused to retry. The DA dismissed a case based on similar evidence against State Patrol Cpl. Kirk Firko.

Kemp was fatally shot in the doorway of his Redlands home in what started as a non-injury, drunken driving investigation. Kemp had returned home after causing a traffic accident and had shut his front door by the time Lawyer and Firko tried contacting him. Mild knocks on the door escalated to the point troopers were pounding and kicking; Lawyer at one point shot pepper spray inside the doorway as Kemp refused to open the door, demanding they get a warrant.

Lawyer’s testimony during the trial raised eyebrows: He said he watched as Kemp had earlier “engaged physically” with Firko just outside the front door. Prosecutors wondered aloud why Lawyer hadn’t said anything about the encounter when Lawyer testified to a grand jury in 2010 or when he was interviewed about the incident by Mesa County Sheriff’s Department investigators.

At the request of Kemp’s family, Hautzinger forwarded case files to federal prosecutors in Denver for consideration of a possible civil rights criminal prosecution. To date, federal authorities have remained silent.

The verdict of the Mesa County jury in Lawyer’s case came months after a Denver federal judge weighed in on the matter. Ruling on a pre-trial motion in a civil lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock saw clear Fourth Amendment violations in Kemp’s death.

The State Patrol told The Daily Sentinel first on Sept. 25 that Lawyer and Firko had been fired as a result of an internal investigation. The agency did not give a reason for the dismissals.

After months of mediation between Kemp’s family and the State Patrol, both sides on Nov. 26 announced an agreement in principle on terms to settle a wrongful death lawsuit. Terms have not been released and court filings indicate the settlement still needs approval from Colorado’s Office of State Controller.


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