ALBANY — After more than four hours of deliberation Thursday, a jury in a civil trial has not yet reached consensus on whether a Schenectady Police Department detective’s use of lethal force in a 2016 shooting was justified.
The jury has to decide whether Detective Brett Ferris faced a credible threat to his own life before firing six shots at 33-year-old Joshua Scism, killing him with a single bullet in the back of the head.
The jury’s verdict is likely to come down to whether its eight members — five men and three women after a ninth female juror was dismissed — believe Scism was reaching for the 9mm handgun he had tucked in his waistband.
The fatal shooting is the subject of a federal lawsuit filed in 2018 by Scism’s widow, Chrystal Scism, administrator of Joshua Scism’s estate. The suit is being tried in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of New York before Judge Therese Wiley Dancks, and it seeks compensation for violations to the Scism family’s civil rights. The suit alleges Scism’s death came as a result of excessive lethal force at the hands of police.
During closing arguments, Andrew Finkelstein, a lawyer for the plaintiff, asked the jury to consider an award of between $10 million and $15 million for the plaintiff.
The shooting occurred during a June 13, 2016, drug sting in Scism’s neighborhood involving three Schenectady police detectives and a confidential informant. As the law enforcement team was setting up for the operation on First Avenue, Scism approached the parked minivan and told the undercover officers to leave and that he had children. But after Ferris, who was in the driver’s seat, saw Scism had a gun, he shouted “he’s got a heater,” and got out of the minivan before firing six shots, one of them fatal, over the course of 1.7 seconds. The entire interaction between Ferris and Scism lasted 22 seconds.
Ferris, who started working for SPD in 2007, never verbally identified himself as a police officer, saying under oath there wasn’t an opportunity to do so. But he did shout “get on the [expletive] ground.” Ferris also testified that he showed Scism his badge clipped to his belt and that Scism looked in his direction.
In closing arguments Thursday morning, Finkelstein argued that Scism was running for his life from a shooter he suspected to be a drug dealer. The plaintiff’s team argued Scism never waved his gun at police.
But the defense argued Scism, who was not the subject of the drug sting and was not previously known to the members of law enforcement on the scene, showed his weapon to the undercover cops in a threatening way and that he was in the process of turning to shoot when Ferris began firing his own gun.
Scism never fired his weapon.
The trial has featured both sides offering competing narratives of the shooting and even disagreeing about how to read physical evidence. For instance, the plaintiff’s team said the bullet hole in the back of the head proves Scism was running away from Ferris, while the defense team argued Scism was turning to avoid gunfire after having turned to face Ferris.
The plaintiff’s team has aimed to cast doubt on law enforcement’s version of events, arguing that the confidential informant, who was not a police officer, offered testimony in 2020 saying he never saw Scism point his gun at anyone. (The informant gave conflicting testimony in 2016 after the shooting.) Finkelstein theorized that police prepared identical stories to explain the shooting, with the detectives’ descriptions around the shooting taking on a uniformity, despite discrepancies elsewhere in the incident’s timeline.
“At the moment of truth, there was exact unison, like a symphony,” Finkelstein said. “That’s why I think they organized it.”
The defense’s team called the plaintiff’s theory baseless.
“The plaintiff didn’t even attempt to connect their provocative theory with evidence,” said Ferris’s attorney Gregg Johnson during his closing. “They just threw out that insulting, derogatory statement and let it hang in the air during this trial.”
The jury is due back in the courtroom at 9 a.m. Friday.
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.