Officer tells court he thought he killed man in car

Josh Pennell
Published on July 25, 2014
Defence lawyer Ken Mahoney (right)  speaks with his client Justin Chipman in court in St. John’s Friday.
— Photo by Josh/The Telegram

For the second day in a row, RNC Const. Dustin Spurrell took to the stand in provincial court in St. John’s to explain why he fired a single bullet from his service gun in February.

The incident happened during Operation Hoodwink, a sting operation set up by the RNC to catch

26-year-old Justin Chipman — a man suspected by police of breaking into vehicles in the area of the MUN Field House.

Chipman took the bait and was seen smashing the window of a car planted by the RNC. When they went to make the arrest, things went sideways.

Past testimony by other RNC officers on the scene at the time has Chipman jumping into a Chevy Equinox and speeding around and around the parking lot. The night ended with a shot fired, a car torched and an arrest that the defense is now questioning the legality of.

Defence lawyer Ken Mahoney, who is arguing that excessive force was used in attempting to apprehend Chipman, spent considerable time questioning Spurrell about what happened when police approached Chipman.

There were some discrepancies between what Const. Chris Harnum — who testified earlier this week — said happened that night and how Spurrell remembers things.

At some point as Chipman was racing around the parking lot, Harnum said he came close to him and brushed his jacket with the car’s sideview mirror. Spurrell said he saw Harnum get hit by that mirror and stumble back. Harnum testified he was calling for the police to let Chipman go because the situation was becoming too dangerous. Harnum did say he wasn’t sure if he was heard because there was a lot of activity happening over the radio.

When Mahoney told Spurrell that Harnum said on the stand that he had said to let Chipman go, Spurrell said that he didn’t believe Harnum had ever said that.

It was at the point of believing he saw Harnum struck by the sideview mirror that Spurrell said he told officers to draw their weapons and took further action to stop Chipman. Spurrell, who was in an unmarked police vehicle, pinned Chipman in his vehicle by “T-boning” it on the driver’s side. Chipman eventually got out of the pin but then got his car stuck in a snowbank trying to exit the parking lot.

Unsuccessful attempts were made to break the window of Chipman’s car. Testimonies from several officers who have taken the stand say Chipman was flooring his vehicle trying to get free with the tires spinning and the Chevy rocking back and forth.

Spurrell had positioned himself in front of Chipman’s vehicle at this point but slightly off to the right, some 10 feet away. He had his pistol drawn. Spurrell said he figured the arrest was about to be made and didn’t expect the vehicle to suddenly veer in his direction but that’s what he said happened.

As Chipman’s vehicle got free, Spurrell said the car was coming at him and it was at this point that he fired the shot. That bullet went through the driver’s side window and grazed Chipman. Training for RNC officers is to always shoot twice then assess the situation. The only reason Spurrell said he didn’t shoot that second bullet was because his magazine had fallen out of his pistol and so the only round in his weapon was the one in the chamber. He had also forgotten to take a second magazine with him, which he said was a rookie mistake on his part.

“I’m confident in my shot,” Spurrell told the court.

He said he thought he had shot and killed Chipman with that one bullet. Chipman actually sped off and was picked up later that night in another part of town.

Mahoney and Spurrell went back and forth about the minor details of what exactly was happening when that single shot was fired.

Mahoney questioned Spurrell again and again on his exact position in front of the car and also his distance from it.

He asked if Chipman was driving right at him, did he feel threatened enough to justify firing a shot?

Mahoney asked several times how close the car was to Spurrell when he fired the shot.

Spurrell, becoming more frustrated on the stand, reiterated that he didn’t know exactly how close, but he assured the court that he felt threatened at having a 4,000 lb piece of metal being driven at him.

The case will resume on Aug. 4.