OMAHA, Neb. — An attorney for a former Omaha police officer charged with felony assault after the death of a mentally ill man questioned assertions by prosecutors Friday that the man was shocked a dozen times with a police stun gun.
Defense attorney Steve Lefler, who is representing former officer Scotty Payne, said investigators came up with that number after an audit of the officer’s Taser showed it was activated 12 times during a June 5 altercation with Zachary Bearheels.
But Lefler said it’s not clear whether the stun gun’s probes made sufficient contact with Bearheels to say the man was shocked that number of times.
Lefler’s comments came after Payne appeared in a jailhouse courtroom for his first hearing on a second-degree felony assault charge. He’d turned himself in hours earlier as arranged by officials and his defense team and was released after posting bail later in the day.
Payne’s preliminary hearing was set for Sept. 11. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Payne and former officer Ryan McClarty were charged earlier this week in the altercation at an Omaha convenience store that preceded the death Bearheels, 29.
Police cruiser video shows Payne using a stun gun on Bearheels and McClarty dragging Bearheels by his hair and repeatedly punching him in the face. McClarty has been ticketed for misdemeanor assault in the case.
Two Omaha police unions have criticized the charges, saying Bearheels was combative when the officers tried to take him into custody. Lefler agreed, saying Payne used what he believed to be non-lethal force to try to get Bearheels under control.
“I mean, what’s the next step? You pull out your gun?” Lefler asked following Friday’s hearing. “Just because someone is mentally ill doesn’t mean that they’re not a risk to the public.”
But prosecutors say the use of the stun gun was excessive, saying Bearheels had committed no crime and that Payne at one point held the trigger of the stun gun, shocking Bearheels for 18 seconds.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said earlier this week that he had decided against filing more serious charges because a coroner could not directly link the officers’ actions to Bearheels’ death.