ST. CLOUD – A pair of chilling police videos that depict the final moments of Mendota Heights officer Scott Patrick’s life aired in court Thursday as prosecutors, finally given a chance to make opening statements in the delayed trial, laid out their evidence of how he was killed.
Looking on were Patrick’s family and police colleagues as well as defendant Brian G. Fitch, who is accused of gunning down Patrick during a routine traffic stop. (The Star Tribune decided against showing the videos.)
“Really there are no words when you hear the sounds that ended a family member’s life,” said Patrick’s half brother, Mike Brue, after seeing the videos taken by two cameras in Patrick’s squad car.
The emotionally charged day also revealed the defense team’s strategy, with attorney Lauri Traub telling the jury in her opening remarks that this case is similar to one memorialized in a popular recent podcast, “Serial,” that called into question the prosecution and eventual conviction of a man on murder charges. As in that case, Traub said, the evidence against her client isn’t as clear-cut as the state wants the jurors to believe.
“This case started backward and they tried to make the facts fit,” she said. She said that on the day Patrick was killed, Fitch was dealing drugs and collecting debts.
Fitch is charged with first-degree murder and three counts of attempted first-degree murder in the July 30 death of Patrick. Fitch is accused of killing the 47-year-old officer during a routine traffic stop. He was cornered by police hours later in a shootout.
In opening statements Thursday, prosecutors said witnesses will prove that Fitch was trying to flee the state after the shooting and that the gun found in his vehicle was the one used to kill Patrick.
Prosecutors called their first 10 witnesses, including a man who used Patrick’s radio to alert police to the shooting and a nurse who attempted to give Patrick CPR. Their testimony and that of other witnesses made it clear that Patrick died almost immediately from three gunshot wounds. A doctor from the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s office testified that Patrick was shot in the right thigh, abdomen and head, likely in that order, and that both of the last two bullets caused mortal wounds.
Shots heard, Patrick falls
The day was dominated by the videos, however, with Dakota County District Court Judge Mary Theisen warning jurors and the 40 or so people packed into the spectators gallery about the graphic nature of the images before they appeared. (The proceedings were moved from Dakota County to Stearns County District Court because of pretrial publicity.)
The first video, taken from a camera pointing at Patrick, shows him patrolling a busy commercial street in his squad car on a sunny July afternoon, a seemingly routine day until he stops his squad car and steps out. Six or seven seconds later, three gunshots ring out.
The second video, taken from a camera pointing out the windshield, shows Patrick calmly walking toward a stopped car when a black object, presumably a gun, comes out of the driver’s window. Patrick crumples to his right, falling hard onto the street. He doesn’t move again. The car speeds off. The driver cannot be seen in the videos.
Theisen put the court on a short recess after the videos were played to give jury members time to compose themselves. Patrick’s family, most of whom had seen the videos previously, looked on stoically; one man’s eyes reddened and he appeared to be crying.
Fitch’s defense team again complained about the prosecution’s ongoing investigation into Patrick’s death, a subject that has come up repeatedly since jury selection began last week.
Defense attorney Lauri Traub said in court Thursday, as she has several times before, that the prosecution continues to gather evidence in the case, making it difficult for her side to prepare a defense.
This time it was over Fitch’s phone records, and a call that he made on the day officer Patrick was shot. Traub said the state has had those records since August, but as recently as Tuesday interviewed someone based on those records.
“Instead of doing any investigation such as calling the phone number, they waited until they got the subscriber information from AT&T and went out and talked to the person on the 20th,” she told the court. “I asked [prosecutor Phillip Prokopowicz] when they would stop doing the investigation; he said it was new information. It’s not. They’ve had this since August.”
Judge Theisen, after hearing from Prokopowicz, said she wasn’t going to order the prosecution to stop following up new leads on the case, and urged Traub to ask the prosecution for whatever new information she needed from them.
A wanted man
In opening statements, prosecutors said evidence shows that Fitch shot officer Patrick and then fled to the house of an associate where he had the Grand Am covered with a tarp. He then drove away in a blue SUV belonging to the homeowner, who loaned it to him at his request, prosecutors said. Fitch made several stops before eventually arriving at the house of an associate in east St. Paul, where he was captured in a wild shootout after an undercover officer spotted him.
Fitch was a wanted man on the day of the shooting, with a warrant out for his arrest. Patrick wouldn’t have known that Fitch was behind the wheel of the green Grand Am, however, because Fitch had just purchased it from a woman and the registration hadn’t changed over, prosecutors said.
Traub, meanwhile, hammered at the state’s case, trying to throw doubt on the state’s timeline, eyewitness identification and firearms analysis. The timeline doesn’t fit Fitch’s whereabouts, she said, and an eyewitness to the shooting of officer Patrick said a young, blond man was the shooter.
“You can see Brian Fitch is not a young man in his late teens or early 20s,” she told the jury, with Fitch, who is 40 years old and bald, seated behind her at the defense table. She said his head was shaved on the day of the shooting as well.
Prosecutors want to use gun evidence against Fitch, but firearms analysis isn’t science, Traub said. Some experts say the increasingly mechanized production of handguns makes it less likely that each gun will have its own, unique barrel markings, the sort of thing firearms analysis uses to identify which gun fired a bullet, she said.
“They think they’ve got it right, and there’s nothing more to talk about,” she said. “If that’s the case, let’s just be a lynch mob. We can get a rope and hang him right now.”
The defense challenges continued as witness Jennifer O’Keefe, a nurse who saw the shooting took place, testified that she locked eyes with the shooter as he drove away and later picked Fitch out of the first of two photo lineups shown to her by police.
Questioned by defense attorney Gordon Cohoes, O’Keefe acknowledged that she didn’t remember correctly what she had done in the second photo lineup that day.
Using police records, Cohoes showed her how she picked three people out of a second sheet of photographs of suspects who had hair. In court she had said she picked one person from that sheet.
“So you did see his picture in the news?” Cohoes asked.
“Yes,” O’Keefe answered. “After the lineup.”