Jury hears opening arguments in deadly shooting lawsuit against SPD detective


ALBANY — On June 13, 2016, Joshua Scism approached a minivan containing three undercover Schenectady Police Department detectives and a confidential informant. The men inside the van were on a drug sting in Scism’s neighborhood and were dressed in plain clothes.

Wanting to protect his neighborhood from drug dealers, Scism, 33, told Brett Ferris, a Schenectady PD detective sitting behind the wheel of the van parked on First Avenue, to “[expletive] leave,” according to an attorney for the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed against Ferris. Scism had kids, he told Ferris.

“If you’re coming to meet somebody, don’t do it on my block,” Scism said, according to Ferris’ account given during an October 2019 deposition.

“Are you good?” Scism asked, according to the deposition.

But as Scism walked away, Ferris saw Scism had a gun.

“That’s the moment everything changed,” attorney Gregg Johnson, who is representing Ferris in a federal lawsuit, said during the defense’s opening statements Monday.

Seconds later, Scism was dead, shot in the back of the head by one of six bullets Ferris fired from his 40-caliber semiautomatic weapon.

“It’s ironic that we’re going to spend almost a week here talking about a decision that was made in split seconds,” Johnson said.

The brief interaction between Scism and Ferris, including the 1.7 seconds during which Ferris fired six shots, will receive intense scrutiny this week as nine jurors — five men and four women — will decide the outcome of a federal lawsuit filed in 2018 by Scism’s widow, Chrystal Scism, administrator of Joshua Scism’s estate.

The lawsuit alleges Scism, who was not the subject of the drug sting and was not previously known to the members of law enforcement on the scene, was killed as a result of excessive force and never brandished his gun. Ferris’ defense argues Scism posed a credible threat to Ferris, justifying the shooting.

The jury was seated Monday in U.S. District Court, Northern District of New York, in front of Hon. Therese Wiley Dancks. The jury heard opening arguments from both sides, as well as roughly an hour of Ferris’ 2019 deposition.

While the plaintiff and defense teams agree Ferris shot and killed Scism, they disagree on many details in the case.

“The defense team and our lawyers, we don’t agree on much,” Andrew Finkelstein, an attorney for the plaintiff, said during opening statements, arguing the case is about a family’s civil rights being violated as a result of an unjustified police shooting. During jury selection, Finkelstein said the plaintiff will be “asking for millions of dollars,” but the plaintiff’s attorneys would not comment on the specific total.

The June 2016 incident escalated quickly when Ferris saw Scism had what’s now-known to be a loaded 9 mm and shouted, “he’s got a heater,” Johnson said in opening statements.

Ferris reached for his own gun approximately five seconds after announcing that he saw Scism’s gun, according to his 2019 deposition.

Ferris got out of the van and shouted “get on the [expletive] ground,” both sides explained during their arguments.

The plaintiff’s attorneys argued Ferris never identified himself or the other detectives as members of law enforcement, and that he shot and killed Scism as Scism was running away from the minivan.

The defense — and Ferris himself via his deposition — argued Scism lifted his shirt while walking away to intentionally reveal the gun in a threatening manner. They say he disobeyed commands to get down before ultimately pulling the gun out of his waistband while turning toward the officers.

Ferris never verbally identified himself as a member of law enforcement, saying in his deposition there was not an opportunity to do so. However, he said he revealed his badge to Scism, whom he said looked at him. He also said he shouted “get on the [expletive] ground.”

“The last thing I remember was him pulling his weapon out,” Ferris, who started with the Schenectady Police Department in 2007, said in his deposition. “I was focused on the gun.”

In the courtroom Monday, Ferris, seated behind his attorneys, appeared to watch the recording of his deposition closely. He wore a gray suit and had a neatly-trimmed beard, and he reached back to scratch his neck and the back of his head for long periods of time.

The plaintiff’s team made an emotional plea to the jury by introducing the three school-aged children the Scisms had together. One of the children clutched a purple stuffed rabbit before Finkelstein asked the family to leave the courtroom prior to delving into details of the case.

The plaintiffs are expected to complete their case by midday Tuesday, with jurors likely to hear from the confidential informant, who has stated that Scism never pointed his gun at anyone, the plaintiff’s team argues. In his opening statements, Finkelstein said the confidential informant’s statements should be given more credibility than the detectives’ statements, because the confidential informant was the only person in the van who was not a member of law enforcement. He alleged police “organized” their stories.

The defense argued the plaintiff’s team is cherry-picking details to suit their case, and also argued the confidential informant had the worst view of anyone in the van because he was seated in the back. Detective Ryan Kent, who was seated in the passenger seat, was named in the original lawsuit, along with the city of Schenectady and its police department. The claims against all but Ferris have since been dismissed. A judge denied Ferris’ motion for dismissal, and he appealed. The federal appeals court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, earlier this year sided with the estate and allowed the portion against Ferris to stand, leading to this week’s trial.

Kent also got out of the van as Scism fled, but he did not fire, according to court documents.

A third detective was seated in the second row of the van.

In his deposition, Ferris described Scism as a white male with a shaved head, standing about 5-foot-10-inches tall and roughly 200 pounds. Ferris also described Scism as angry, tense and scowling, putting Ferris on edge.

“Everything was so fast,” Ferris said in the deposition. “It was only a few seconds long.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

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