Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Oct. 2, 2009
Our View - Justifying the shooting raises more questions
HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another -- the classification is for advantage of the lawyers. -- Ambrose Bierce, "The Devil's Dictionary" (1911).
We printed the above quotation from Ambrose Bierce soon after that dreadful night in July when an argument between two people -- one black, 26, drunk and holding a knife; the other white, 63, having just come out of a bar and willing to throw punches -- turned physical, someone got stabbed and then someone got shot.
Unfortunately, Bierce's pessimism still seems all too appropriate even one week after the Iowa Attorney General's office issued its report stating that Johnson County Deputy Terry Stotler was justified in using lethal force against John Deng after the Sudanese refugee, while refusing to drop a knife, made what Stotler perceived as a threatening move toward John Bohnenkamp, who already had been stabbed.
The good news is that there seems to be little question about the facts presented in the Attorney General's report. Even those who have criticized the Attorney General's conclusions largely have used the facts presented in the report as the basis for their criticism. Although three witnesses came forward in the days after the incident and presented an account in which they said Deng didn't have a knife and Stotler didn't identify himself as a law enforcement officer, their testimony contradicts the testimony of nine other witnesses at the scene, the physical evidence, the 911 calls and the video captured by patrol cars that arrived on the scene later.
The report did answer many of the questions we asked in earlier editorials:
• Deng had been drinking; his blood-alcohol level was nearly four times the legal limit for driving.
• Stotler, as a plainclothes civil deputy, was only carrying a badge, a gun and handcuffs. He did not have access to the additional equipment that a uniformed officer would have, such as pepper spray, a Taser or a night stick.
• Multiple witnesses and 911 callers confirm that Stotler clearly identified himself as a law enforcement officer and that he spoke to Deng, whose primary language was not English, in short, easily understandable commands to drop the knife.
But the report raised a number of new questions when it stated that, after Stotler had arrived on the scene and had his gun pointed at Deng, Bohnenkamp allegedly refused to follow Stotler's command to flee. Instead, the report states, Bohnenkamp allegedly punched Deng in the head so hard that the man fell down. Nor did Bohnenkamp, according to the report, follow Stotler's repeated orders to flee even after Deng stood up and eventually made what Stotler considered a threatening move.
Because Bohnenkamp has offered no comment on the incident -- and because Deng can't comment -- we still don't know what all was said between the two men. The report states that Bohnenkamp initiated the confrontation when he yelled at Deng for dropping some bottles, but we don't know why the confrontation seemed to escalate so quickly or why Bohnenkamp didn't flee when given a chance.
Nor do we know how much (if any) Bohnenkamp had been drinking before the incident. Although Bohnenkamp had just come out of a bar, investigators did not measure the 63-year-old's blood-alcohol content -- despite Bohnenkamp having been taken to the hospital where a blood sample presumably could have been procured easily.
But knowing whether Bohnenkamp was inebriated won't change anything that happened on that night. Regardless of Bohnenkamp's blood-alcohol level, the senselessness of the original argument only compounds the senselessness of Deng's death.
We agree with the Attorney General that Stotler made a justifiable decision when presented with a horrid situation. But we also think the community will be dealing with the aftermath of this incident for a long time.