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‘I’m Just Hurt, Mad’: Mother of Unarmed Black Man Killed By Police Denied Wrongful Death Lawsuit Because of Qualified Immunity

A mother’s nine-year fight for justice for her son, Ryan Stokes, who was killed by a Kansas City, Missouri, police officer dealt another blow after an U.S. Appeals Court denied her wrongful death lawsuit.

Narene Stokes, 63, says she will never forget the night of July 28, 2013, a date that changed her life forever and kickstarted an endless fight for justice on behalf of her son, Ryan Stokes, 24, and her 10-year-old granddaughter.

“We loved Ryan, he was the only boy in the family,” Narene Stokes said of her son.

“It just tears me up, I’m just hurt now still, eight years, mad,” Narene Stokes said in frustration of the U.S. Appeals Court decision to deny her wrongful death lawsuit for her son.

The night Ryan Stokes was killed, he and his friends were in the entertainment district in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. It was around 2:30 that morning Ryan and his friend were approached by a group of white men leaving a bar and accused Ryan’s friend of stealing a cellphone that belonged to one of them.

“This white boy says, one of Ryan’s friends stole or took his phone, Ryan the peacemaker says, no, they didn’t steal the phone,” Narene Stokes said of how the string of events began.

A brief scuffle amongst the men ensued, drawing the attention of police in the area.

“Law enforcement, instead of stepping in and saying, what’s up, fellas, they just sprayed everybody with pepper spray,” said Cyndy Short, attorney representing Stokes’ family in the case.

Short says once police got involved things took a turn for the worse, as Stokes and one of his friends ran away toward the parking lot. One of the officers, William Thompson, a 20-year veteran of the department, followed Stokes near where his friend’s car was parked.

“There’s an officer that enters the parking lot from the north that is behind Ryan, Ryan does not know this officer has entered the parking lot, there are no commands given, he sees a bike cop coming from the south, he steps to the bike cop to talk to the cop, his hands are this way, they’re empty when he gets shot from behind by the other officer,” said Short.

Short says soon after the shooting the KCMD tried to reframe what actually happened. “The story they brought to Narene, which was about 14 hours later, and told her that the investigation had been conducted and that they were forced to shoot her son in this standoff and that they had shot him in the chest,” Short said.

While preparing for her son’s funeral Narene Stokes was urged to see a lawyer because the police narrative of her son being shot in the chest did not match two gunshot wounds on the back of her son’s body.

“The funeral director said, as hard as this is, you need to see your son’s body, he was not shot in the chest, and you need to see a lawyer,” said Short.

Narene Stokes describes the narrative she says was presented by police: “The lies, first it’s the cellphone, that’s the beginning, then it goes into the gun, then it goes into them trying to demonize Ryan’s character,” Stokes said.

A few months after the shooting, Thompson evaded criminal charges after a grand jury declined to indict him in October 2013. Three years after Ryan Stokes was killed, his family filed a civil rights lawsuit against Officer Thompson and the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners.

The question of qualified immunity was front and center after U.S. District Judge Brian Wimes justified the shooting in a ruling on Feb. 11, 2020, “Officer Thompson relied on his observations to conclude Stokes posed a threat of death or serious physical injury to other officers such that Officer Thompson’s use of deadly force cannot be said to violate a clearly established constitutional right of which a reasonable officer would have known.”

Court documents say Officer Thompson claimed “he saw Stokes with a gun when he entered the parking lot and believed that he intended to ambush the pursuing officer.” However, even some of Thompson’s fellow officers on scene dispute Ryan ever possessing a gun.

The court decided to justify Officer Thompson’s fatal shooting, saying, “Officer Thompson’s use of deadly force was reasonable, even though at the time of the shooting, Stokes was not in fact armed.” The court went on to say, “consequently, the record doesn’t demonstrate the violation of a constitutional right, and Officer Thompson is entitled to qualified immunity.”

Although the Stokes family appealed that decision, it was affirmed on May 31 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight District.

“It’s very difficult to overcome this concept, this legal doctrine of qualified immunity that protects officers and leaves citizens to suffer under what the judge calls, these tragic circumstances,” Short said.

“They want to call it a tragic mistake, yeah, you really made a mistake when they killed Ryan, how they treated us, they had no empathy for us, none, to come to my home and lied to me like that,” Narene Stokes said angrily.

Short says the Stokes family plans to appeal the decision again in an effort to get some semblance of justice.

“We will appeal the Court’s decision en banc, the next thing after that if we lose that is we can ask the United States Supreme Court, the likelihood of success for each of those is low but that doesn’t mean we don’t try that,” Short said.

In the meantime, Narene Stokes says Ryan’s now 10-year-old daughter continues to motivate her to keep fighting for justice for her son. “She’s 10, she asks questions about her dad, and we have to answer those and to let her know it wasn’t right what they did to Ryan, ”Stokes said.

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