WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Before Black Lives Matters, before the nation turned its focus on police shootings of unarmed Black citizens, there was Dontrell Stephens.
The West Palm Beach man was 20 years old when Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office Deputy Adam Lin on Sept. 13, 2013, tried to pull him over for a bicycle infraction.
Lin mistook Stephens' cell phone for a gun and fired four shots. One of the bullets severed Stephens’ spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed.
Stephens, 28, died on Sunday at a Port St. Lucie hospital, a year after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a $6 million claims bill for Stephens.
But for years, Stephens fought to collect on a $22 million jury verdict against PBSObecause state law requires lawmakers to approve settlements with local governments more than $200,000.
"That played a significant role in the decline of his health because for years he was essentially homeless," said attorney Ian Goldstein, who represented Stephens. "He didn't have adequate medical care. He was just left to fend for himself. And they fought it tooth and nail to the very end."
Goldstein said the cause of Stephens' death remains unknown, but state Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, said Stephens died of complications from his paralysis.
"He would be here today if he had not been shot and paralyzed by PBSO," Hardy said in a statement. "He might still have been here if Sheriff (Ric) Bradshaw hadn't fought to deny him the money that he needed to get care after the shooting. The sheriff needs to do some soul-searching and acknowledge the role that he and his agency have played in this tragedy."
Bradshaw tried to convince top legislative attorneys to ignore the jury's finding that Lin used excessive force when he shot Stephens after stopping him for riding his bicycle erratically on Haverhill Road.
Goldstein said the video from Lin's dashboard camera proved essential and would set precedent in holding police accountable in unjustified shootings.
"Unjustly, without the video, we would have never known the truth," Goldstein said. "They would have just accepted the version that the police gave."
Lin was cleared of criminal charges.
The video of the shooting was obtained by WPTV in 2013, but it occurred long before high-profile fatal shootings of other unarmed Black Americans.
"Everyone knows who George Floyd is. Everyone knows who Breonna Taylor is. No one knows Dontrell Stephens," Goldstein said. "I don't know that it really got that much national attention. I felt like it didn't get enough attention."
In January 2017, Stephens was sentenced to nine months house arrest for selling a drug cocktail to an undercover agent.
Deputies said the charge stood on its own, but Goldstein on Thursday maintained that it was a setup.
"It was a concerted effort by law enforcement to undermine his credibility," the lawyer said.
Goldstein said he remembered Stephens as an affable young man who had a rough life.
"He lived a very difficult life. He lost his father at young age. He lost his mother while this was all pending," he said. "So, Dontrell and his brothers have been really left to raise each other."
Lin is still employed with the sheriff's office and has since been promoted to sergeant.