The murder trial last week for Steven Ryan, 64, ended with a “lesser-included” verdict, hugely favorable to the defendant even though an eyewitness said the young black man, De'Shaun Davis, was on his knees with his hands in the air saying, “I give up” at the time Steven Ryan shot him dead.
At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement was at its most conspicuous and vociferous, the fall of 2016, a little over two years after vigilante George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and was later acquitted, and the BLM movement kicked off, it seemed to many of us here in Mendoland that that kind of thing could never — ever — happen here — and even if it did, the killer would never — NEVER — survive a jury of nine Mendolib women and three Mendomen with gray, cool-guy pony-tails and neatly trimmed beards.
The first to respond to the scene of De’Shaun’s last stand was the legendary Sergeant Peter Hoyle of the Ukiah Police. Hoyle heard the call come in that shots had been fired and a black man was down. It was November 21st, 2016,; the scene, 226 Vichy Springs Road just before noon. It was a Monday. Officer Hoyle, having run past the body on the ground and ordered anyone in the house to come out.
Steven Patrick Ryan promptly emerged and Hoyle cuffed him. By then Sheriff’s deputies were arriving and Hoyle went over and took a closer look at the man on the ground, De’Shaun Christopher Davis.
“I’d been told he was dead,” Hoyle said. “He looked dead.”
Once the scene was secure paramedics confirmed Hoyle’s finding.
Ryan had fired three shots from a his shiny new Springfield Arms .45 Model XD semi-automatic handgun; it was loaded with metal-jacketed hollow points “for maximum kill potential” — bullets designed for killing, not merely stopping, people.
Ryan also had a surveillance camera connected to his big-screen TV so he could view the area in front of his house, the kill zone, where De’Shaun’s body lay.
Ryan has been on a morphine pump for years due to a back injury, and therefore an opoid addict of considerable standing. He has been retired and on disability for a long time, and he said he “volunteers… as a preacher and alcohol abuse counselor,” and we’ll pause here to ponder God’s great irony.
Ryan’s self-defense strategy obliged him to take the stand and explain why he went out and shot the black kid down.
“I heard someone yelling, ‘motherfucker’,” Ryan said, “and there was something about the way it sounded…” something that made him clip on his shiny new pistol and hurry outside to confront De’Shaun Davis.
On cross-examination, DA David Eyster tried to get at what Ryan meant by “something about the way it sounded…” but Ryan wouldn’t say. Ryan was too crafty to admit that the “something” he recognized in De’Shaun’s voice was the tell-tale dialect and accent of an African-American’s pronunciation of this commonplace epithet.
But let’s hear what the eyewitness had to say.
Elvia Valencia-Ceja, the young mother of two small boys, was just arriving on the scene at around 11:00 a.m. to visit her parents who lived next door to Ryan. She had lived with her parents before getting married, so she knew Ryan and said she considered him a friend.
“I was just making the corner into the area [a large gravel lot with several houses and outbuildings around it] and saw Steve [Ryan] making hand movements with one hand and holding a coffee cup with the other.”
“Where was he standing?”
“On the grass just in front of his porch.”
“You said he was making hand movements?”
“Yes, like this, like directing someone to go, get out, go away.”
“Was he saying anything?”
“I had my music on and couldn’t hear, but he looked like he was talking.”
“Did you see anyone else?”
“After I made the turn I saw a young African-American.”
“What was he doing?”
“He was just walking, pushing a bicycle.”
“Which way was he going?”
“He was heading out of the property.”
“Was he going to leave?”
“I believe he was. So I parked and turned off my car [and music], and I could hear Steve telling the guy, yelling at him to ‘get out, this is private property’.”
“Did he sound angry?”
“What about the other guy?”
“He [Davis] told him [Ryan], ‘I’m not doing anything, I’m just going by.’ Then Steve turned to me and said, ‘you might want to go in the house’.”
“I was getting my boys out, first. I had my three-year-old out and went around to get the baby out of the car seat. Steve kept yelling ‘get out,’ and the guy said again, ‘I’m not doing anything’ and when I looked up I saw Steve set his coffee cup down on the porch — I was very nervous and couldn’t get the baby out of the car seat, so I just picked up the car seat, closed the door and took a few steps when I saw Steve pull out a gun and aimed it with both hands, like this.”
“Stand up and show the jury how he did it, Elvia…”
“Like this. [She demonstrated].”
“What about the other guy?”
“I guess he got frustrated ‘cause he threw his bicycle down and started walking towards Steve saying he had been in the Navy or the Army or something and he could do what he wanted and the guy was doing this with his hands [waving in a vague gesture] when Steve shot him.”
This was probably the shot that went through Davis’s hand.
Ms. Valencia-Ceja was trembling visibly and squeezed her eyes shut. She took a drink of water after a moment then went on with her story.
“Steve shot one time and the black guy dropped to his knees, put his hands up and said, ‘No-no, I give up — stop!’ And then Steve shoots two more times.”
“He was on his knees with his hands up, like this, with the palms out [Eyster demonstrated]?”
“Yes, like that.”
“What did you do?”
“I froze — I wanted to go see if the guy was okay but my mom told me not to because I have two kids/” (Apparently Mom thought Ryan might shoot Elvia, too.)
Heidi Larson of the Office of the Public Defender rose to cross-examine.
“You’ve known Steve for several years?”
“And when you came around the corner you slowed down and stopped?”
“No, not ‘til I parked.”
“You said he [Ryan] was waving his hand?”
“And he couldn’t have been waving at you?”
“He wasn’t waving you to move on?”
“You had your music on?”
“So you have no knowledge of what was being said?”
“And he — the black man, that is — he threw his bike down and said, ‘I was in the Marines and I can do whatever I like’?”
A subtle lawyer’s trick, deftly applied: even though Elvia’s English was good, it was not perfect — she had an interpreter sitting next to her on the witness stand, in case she needed clarification — and so Ms. Larson was able to turn this concept of “I served my country, so I ought to be free to exercise my liberty as an American service veteran to come and go as I wish,” which was how it was intended, into the belligerent boast, “I’m a big bad-ass marine and I can get away with whatever I want.”
“Yes,” Elvia admitted with reluctance, he had said he could do whatever he wanted. Astute enough to understand that her words had been twisted, however, she then turned to Judge John Behnke and asked if she could take a break to compose herself. She was very shaky and pale. She was given 10 minutes, and escorted out by an officer from victim witness. When she came back, Ms Larson started in again.
“When you first came in you couldn’t hear anything that was being said, could you?”
“And when you got out of the car, Steve told you to go in the house?”
“And you were busy getting your children out, so isn’t it possible one of the black man’s hands was like this…?” (Larson demonstrated — I was writing in my notebook and only got a glimpse, but I thought Ms. Larson was flipping the bird.)
“Would it change your opinion if you knew the black man was shot through the back of the hand?”
At this point Elvia turned and conferred with the Spanish language interpreter and, through him, she answered:
“I think there was no motive for killing him. If Steve thought he was in danger he could have shot him in the foot or hand.”
“After the third shot what did he [Davis] do?”
“He just dropped kind of on his side.”
“Did he move after that?”
“At any point did you hear the African-American man cussing at Steve?”
“I can’t remember any.”
That was about it, along with some assertions that a creek bed runs along the top of the property and that there are trails through and around the property used by transients and the homeless, as well as locals on their way to and from a nearby ball field.
Detective Clint Wyant was called. Det. Wyant determined where the shooter stood by the ejection pattern of the weapon involved, the three shells were right there, which agreed with the eyewitness’s testimony that Ryan had been standing on the grass right in front of his porch. Wyant determined by the angle of the fatal gunshot wound, which began in the upper chest and angled down through “vital organs,” that the victim — who was taller than his assailant — was not standing when the shot was fired, also corroborating the eyewitness’s testimony.
The second shot was also aimed downward, and was found nine inches off the ground where it punched through the corrugated metal of an outbuilding at the back of the property.
Ryan said Davis was standing when he fired the first two shots, and that he only fired the third because Davis was getting ready to attack Ryan, who claimed to fear for his life. Public Defender Larson told the jurors, by way of introduction, that they would acquit her client once they heard his sad, sad story about how frightened he was of the black man, young Mr. Davis.
Ryan began his story with such a blurt of vindication it was hard to get it down on paper, at first, but after a while Ms. Larsen got him calmed down enough that some of it could be recorded — yes, even the court reporter had to ask him to slow down.
“Did you at any time yell at Mr. Davis and tell him to get off the property?”
“Oh no, no, I said, ‘Sir, can I help you?”
“And how did he respond?”
“He said, ‘Shut the fuck up!’”
“What did you say next?”
“Actually, it was he who yelled at me that his girlfriend had broken up with him and he didn’t care what the hell happened to him and every time I tried to say something he just told me to shut the fuck up.”
“Did he tell you he’d harm you?”
“Oh yes, he said he was trained how to use his hands and feet, and seeing my wheelchair on the porch, he said he’d put me in it.”
“So, just to clarify, he said you were an old man?”
“Yes, he did.”
“Then he came towards you?”
“Yes, that’s when Elvie came in, and I tried to wave her through.”
“Why did you do that?”
“I thought it would be dangerous for her.”
“Did he say anything else to you at this time?”
“He said he was going to rob me and he threw his bike down — and he threw it down hard — and he came toward me.”
“What did you do?”
“I said, ‘Sir, if you attack me I’m going to defend myself.’ Then he said, ‘Do you have a gun?’ and I said ‘yes,’ and he said, ‘I have a gun too,’ so I pulled my gun and shot two shots.”
Davis was 63 feet from Ryan’s property.
“Why did you shoot?”
“He’d stopped and his hand went to his waist, under his clothing.”
“What happened after you shot at him?”
“He spun around and went down. Then his hand went to his waistband again so I shot a third time and he said, ‘I’m through’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir’.”
“Did he tell you how old he was?”
“Yes, he said he was 32 and an ex-marine and he could do whatever he wanted to me.”
“You said the first two shots were very quick — how long before you fired the third shot?”
“It was a long break.”
“You saw him trying to get back up?”
“Yes, I did.”
Larsen asked more questions about what passed between them in conversation and none of it, not a word of it, coincided with anything eyewitness Elvia had said.
On cross-examination Eyster asked, incredulously, if Ryan thought Elvia was lying in order to get him in trouble? No, Ryan said in his bland manner, she was just mistaken about what she saw.
This reporter found it absurd, especially all the business about Davis unloading his personal problems on this complete stranger, but judging from the verdict, the jury must have lapped it up. And to be sure, DA Eyster, on cross, blew the whole story full of holes, but it was a long process and would take up more space than, frankly, such a ridiculous story deserves.
As for any signs of remorse, when Eyster asked Ryan why he hadn’t called 911 or tried to render any aid to his victim, Ryan replied blandly that that wasn’t his job.
If Black Lives Matter in Mendocino County, it certainly wasn’t reflected in this jury. And I can say this, too: The police — who usually get blamed for recklessly shooting black kids — were uniformly appalled at the verdict.