Two former Boulder County sheriff’s deputies were found guilty of manslaughter in the 2018 death of 23-year-old Demetrius Shankling on Friday, with the jury deliberating for approximately eight hours before announcing the verdict.
The joint trial for James O’Brien, 52, and Adam Lunn, 39, began last week after numerous delays due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Testimony wrapped up Thursday after both men declined to testify in their own defense, and attorneys finished closing arguments Friday morning. The jury began deliberating at approximately 10:45 a.m., returning with the guilty verdicts just before 7 p.m.
O’Brien and Lunn, who now face possible sentences of between two and six years, were both charged with manslaughter in Shankling’s death, which Colorado law defines as when a person “recklessly causes the death of another person.”
In a statement, District Attorney Michael Dougherty said the jury’s decision was the right and just outcome.
“But for the acts of defendant James O’Brien and defendant Adam Lunn, Demetrius Shankling would be alive today,” Dougherty said. “Instead, because of them, the 23rd birthday he celebrated that night was his last. The guilty verdicts reflect what members of law enforcement, including Sheriff Joe Pelle, immediately recognized about the actions of these two individuals on September 9, 2018. They are fully responsible for the death of Demetrius.”
Defense attorney Carrie Slinkard could not be reached for comment late Friday.
According to an arrest affidavit, O’Brien and Lunn were called by Boulder police to pick up Shankling at 2:20 a.m. Sept. 9, 2018. The affidavit said that the two deputies were working an extra shift at that time doing transport duties for the Addiction Recovery Center.
According to body camera and transport van surveillance, the two deputies physically placed Shankling on his stomach with his hands behind his back in one of the transport van’s holding compartments, which contain benches with seat belts.
The passenger-side rear compartment, where Shankling was placed, is less than 5 feet in length and Shankling was 6 feet tall, according to the affidavit. For Shankling to fit, the man’s legs had to be lifted off the floor. The affidavit says the deputies pressed on the compartment door to get it shut, causing Shankling’s left leg to get wedged against the inside of the door.
Shankling was in the van for 16 minutes while being transported to the Addiction Recovery Center. When the deputies arrived at the center, they found Shankling unresponsive and not breathing.
Assistant District Attorney Ken Kupfner and Senior Deputy District Attorney Christian Gardner-Wood said during closing arguments that due to Shankling’s height, he never should have been placed in a transport space that was less than 5 feet in length.
“To be clear, Demetrius Shankling died because of James O’Brien and Adam Lunn and their reckless conduct and reckless action,” Gardner-Wood said. “It’s not the sheriff’s office’s fault, not the van’s fault.”
Gardner-Wood said the two people responsible for Shankling’s safety “shoved him into that van that compressed his body and let him die over the next 16 minutes.”
Kupfner recapped from his opening arguments that both deputies had training on positional asphyxia which, along with the combined toxic effects of alcohol and amphetamine, led to Shankling’s death. Slinkard, though, has argued that the deputies had little familiarity with the transport van.
Kupfner said the former deputies were well aware of Shankling’s level of intoxication.
“It wasn’t a mystery,” Kupfner said. “It wasn’t a question.”
He said the tool the former deputies were given to transport the man was misused.
“There were options,” Kupfner said in regards to how Shankling was transported.
Slinkard said during her closing argument that her clients have had the weight of this incident on their shoulders for the last three years.
“I want to start by acknowledging the tragedy,” Slinkard said. “Absolutely, hands down, this was a tragic event and that needs to be considered. My clients have had the weight of this incident on their shoulders for the past three years. But it’s sad because it was an accident. Accidents can’t amount to crime.”
Slinkard said Shankling was “extremely intoxicated” and that he had also ingested amphetamines, pointing to these as factors in his death.
Slinkard replayed audio from the early morning transport when Shankling was found unconscious by the deputies.
“Based on the audio we heard, no one would disagree that they were concerned. It was a tragedy, but a genuine accident,” Slinkard said.
Shankling was taken to Boulder Community Health’s Foothills Hospital and then transferred to the Swedish Medical Center in Englewood on Sept. 12, 2018. He died Oct. 6, 2018.
Gardner-Wood said Shankling spent 27 days in a coma before his death.
An autopsy report concluded that Shankling died from “positional asphyxia with the combined toxic effects of ethanol and amphetamine contributing,” and the death was ruled a homicide.
Following the incident, both deputies were initially placed on administrative leave in September 2018. Their employment with the sheriff’s office ended in March 2019 after an internal investigation.
The sentencing for O’Brien and Lunn is set for 10 a.m. on Nov. 4.
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