Bryan Morrell visits the spot where his friend, Zach Gifford, was gunned down by sheriff’s officers in April 2020.
The trial against Quinten Stump ended with a hung jury last week, leaving it unclear whether the former Kiowa County sheriff’s deputy will be held criminally responsible for his part in killing longtime Eads resident Zach Gifford.
Stump and his then-supervisor, former Undersheriff Tracy Weisenhorn, both shot the 39-year-old handyman in the back as he ran away from them during a traffic stop in rural Brandon, Colo., in April 2020.
Gifford’s family sued the Kiowa County government and in April reached a $9.5 million civil rights settlement for a case that shook public confidence in local law enforcement and prompted Casey Sheridan, the popular county sheriff, to resign.
Meanwhile, Weisenhorn – who initiated the traffic stop and fired the first bullet – was not criminally prosecuted because she claimed to have feared Gifford was armed and could have killed her. Stump, for his part, faced two counts of Second-Degree Attempted Murder and one count of Second-Degree Assault for shooting Gifford despite having known he was unarmed.
Fifteenth Judicial District Attorney Josh Vogel began his arguments by emphasizing the 20 seconds between the time Stump took his first shot at Gifford and when he took his second. Vogel indicated that was long enough for the deputy to have made a reasonable decision to stop himself from firing again at a man he knew was not posing a physical threat.
The DA then called upon a handful of police officers to testify, including Sgt. Juan Rodriguez who headed the investigation for the Prowers County Sheriff’s Department, the lead agency on the case. Rodriguez described the bullet casings found at the scene and walked through the autopsy photos – making it clear that Stump and Weisenhorn each discharged their service weapons twice during the altercation.
Later on the witness stand was Brian Morrell, whose bathroom Gifford was remodeling on the day of his killing. That morning, Morrell testified, he had been fixing flat tires on a pickup carrying a heavy log splitter and asked Gifford to help him find a place low enough to park so they could unload the machine without having to carry it.
“We never found a spot. We got stopped,” he said, referring to Weisenhorn pulling him over near his home for failing to use his turn signal.
Vogel asked Morrell what mood Gifford, who was riding in the passenger’s seat, had been in that day.
“Good. I never seen him in a bad mood. He never got upset,” Morrell told the DA.
Morrell said he didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary during the pat-down until “Zach started to take off.” He described his friend’s scuffle with both officers, how both tasered him more than once, and how Gifford broke loose from their grip and started to run.
“I heard two gunshots. I could see him running, but there was a tree there that blocked some of it.”
Defense attorney Michael Stuzynski asked Morrell if Gifford had been doing drugs that day. Morrell answered, “Not that I know of.”
Stump had found a small baggie with methamphetamine residue in Gifford’s pocket when patting him down.
On Vogel’s redirect, Morrell indicated he’d been frightened during the altercation. Vogel asked why. “I was scared because of the gun shots. Cops aren’t supposed to be shooting at people when they’re running away from them,” Morrell answered.
Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) field agent Derek Graham spent nearly five hours on the stand as Vogel walked him through footage from both officers’ body cameras and three interviews with Stump in the days and weeks after the incident.
The body cam footage showed Weisenhorn asking Gifford for his birth date, him giving it to her correctly, and her accusing him of giving her false information because she had written down the wrong numbers.
Graham testified that the footage of Stump’s three interviews after Gifford’s killing show how his description of the incident changed over time. In the first interview, Stump was shaken and unclear about details. In his final interview weeks later, he made excuses for taking that last shot some 20 seconds after the first, saying:
Gifford had bowled Weisenhorn over when he started to run (which was proven not accurate)
Gifford had his hands down at his waistband, causing Weisenhorn to yell, “He has a g—!”
Because Gifford was running toward Brandon (a community with only a handful of houses, where neither Stump nor Wisenhorn saw anyone else that day), he worried he might take someone hostage or infect an elderly resident with COVID.
Graham noted that Stump failed to give any commands to Gifford during the run-in, and in fact told Weisenhorn to, “Let him go.”
One of Stump’s police academy instructors testified that Stump scored a 99% on his final examination, showing he knew full well that because Gifford did not pose an imminent threat to him and Weisenhorn, the altercation did not justify their use of deadly force.
A forensic pathologist testifying for the prosecution said, among other things, that Gifford being subjected to multiple taser shots may have paralyzed his hands down near his waistband in a position Weisenhorn claimed she interpreted as him possibly reaching for a gun.
Weisenhorn, when she took the stand, acknowledged she had been staking out Morrell’s home before the traffic stop and that her false impression that Gifford had given her an incorrect birth date made her suspicious he and Morrell may have been high. She also testified that Stump yelling “Zach, don’t move!” during his pat-down made her fear Gifford had a gun.
Though body camera footage captured Weisenhorn saying, “You kicked me motherfucker” during her scuffle with Gifford, she testified that he hadn’t actually hurt her.
Perhaps Weisenhorn’s most dramatic testimony came with her assertion that she is positive she hit Gifford with her first bullet between the spine and right chest area – the shot his autopsy shows was likely fatal. Even though the report found Gifford died of multiple gunshots, Weisenhorn’s assertion may have cast reasonable doubt that it was Stump who was primarily responsible for killing him.
Stump – who had lost previous law enforcement jobs in other communities prior to being hired as a rookie deputy by then-Kiowa County Sheriff Casey Sheriden in 2019 – sat expressionless throughout most of last week’s trial except for sobbing after waiving his right to take the witness stand.
Gifford’s parents, Larry and Carla Gifford, and his two brothers were present at trial. Carla Gifford would leave the courtroom during the more graphic and traumatic testimony, but Larry Gifford sat stoically through it all, regardless of how difficult.
The DA rested his case on Wednesday afternoon and Stump’s defense team called their one and only witness: Charles Key from Baltimore, who served in various police positions for more than 30 years and now provides expert witness testimony to defend police officers across the nation. Based on “5 gigabytes of data” he had about Gifford’s killing, Key was aggressive to the point of overbearing in insisting Stump’s actions were justified.
“It is my expert opinion after evaluating the Use of Deadly Force case in accordance with national standards that Deputy Stump’s conduct during the stop, pat down, altercation and arrest of Gifford was reasonable and consistent,” he said.
Vogel spent a great deal of time trying to block some of Key’s more exaggerated claims, including:
That Gifford was “twerking” due to methamphetamine in his system (body camera footage showed that claim was untrue)
That the box cutter and pliers Gifford was carrying in his pockets qualified as “weapons,” even though Stump was not concerned about them
And that Gifford’s act of kicking Weisenhorn (even though he didn’t hurt her) constituted an assault on a police officer that warranted a potentially fatal response
Key insisted that residents of Brandon could have been at risk with Gifford on the loose, although he and Vogel bantered back and forth about the huge distances to any houses in the sparsely-populated town that were still occupied. He also referred to the plastic baggy Stump saw in Gifford’s coin pocket as a “bulge,” indicating it was reasonable that Stump thought it may be some sort of weapon.
Vogel continued trying to debunk Key’s assertions, but the East Coast consultant was loud and confident enough to sound convincing.
As for the second bullet Stump fired at Gifford, Key said, “He had every reason to take that shot. The only way to stop Mr. Gifford was to use deadly force.”
Key – who had been present in the courtroom during Weisenhorn’s testimony – insisted it was her first shot, not either of Stump’s that killed Gifford. Vogel cast doubt on that conclusion and, in his jury instructions, Judge Michael Davidson told jurors it is unclear whose bullet was actually fatal. Still, the forcefulness of Key’s testimony may have caused some doubt or at the very least confusion in the minds of some jurors.
During closing arguments, Vogel approached the jury and repeated what he had told them in his opening: that Stump had plenty of time to reasonably determine that Gifford – who had already been shot and was running due east away from the town – was not an imminent threat to the deputy or Undersheriff Weisenhorn or others. Vogel underscored that argument by starting the timer on his watch and saying nothing for 20 seconds while the jurors sat in uncomfortable silence.
Vogel also pointed out how Stump’s excuses for shooting Gifford grew increasingly far-fetched in each of his after-incident interviews.
“Zach Gifford posed no threat to the defendant. He was simply trying to run away,” the DA said.
The defense agreed that Gifford’s killing was a tragedy, but urged jurors to hold out on convicting Stump if they had reasonable doubts about his culpability.
Some apparently did.
On the first count of Attempted Murder in the Second Degree – corresponding to the first shot Stump fired at Gifford – the jury found him not guilty.
Judge Davidson then asked the jurors to leave the courtroom and closed the court proceedings while he consulted with them. He resumed proceedings 20 minutes later, announcing the jury would not return to the courtroom and that he would read their determinations on the two remaining charges.
On the second count of Second-Degree Attempted Murder – for the second shot Stump fired at Gifford – Davidson declared a mistrial as the jury could not collectively agree on a verdict. He also declared a mistrial on the third count, Second-Degree Assault – corresponding with the bullet wound Stump’s second shot inflicted upon Gifford – because the jury vote was not unanimous.
A jury member has indicated to the Independent the tallies were 10 to convict Stump and two for no conviction.
That juror further stated, “We took numerous straw polls on the last two counts, and no one waived on their perception of what happened. It did get tense at times, but we would back away or get up and walk around the room. It simply came down to individual perspective.”
Judge Davidson decided that the jury had deliberated long enough, to the point of emotional exhaustion, after two weeks of proceedings and that members could resort to coercion if he forced them back into deliberations until they reached unanimous verdicts.
He will hold a status conference later this month about when to schedule a new trial.
Vogel wouldn’t comment on the case Monday, telling the Independent he has not yet made any decisions on whether to retry Stump or drop the two remaining criminal charges against him.
Vogel is one of the few district attorneys in Colorado – or anywhere in the U.S., for that matter – to have prosecuted an officer for excessive force. Last week’s two 10-2 mistrials could be construed as an embarrassment to the second-term elected prosecutor or as relative victories in a conservative pro-law enforcement community like Kiowa County.
As for Gifford’s family — his mother, Carla said, “We feel like we got bucked off today, but we’ll get back on the horse and keep going. We just want justice for Zach.”