“Alien Boy,” a local documentary about a schizophrenic man who died in police custody in 2006 has been dragged into a legal tug-of-war between the victim’s family and the city of Portland.
Portland filmmaker Brian Lindstrom has only just begun shooting the project, which focuses on the life and death of James Chasse Jr., a 42-year-old Old Town resident who succumbed to blunt-force trauma after being tackled and tazered by police officers outside the upscale Pearl District restaurant Bluehour.
But city attorneys say the film, together with continued media scrutiny into the episode, could stoke hostility toward the officers involved and make it impossible for them to get a fair trial in the civil wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Chasse family in U.S. District Court.
At stake is a gag order imposed in October by Judge Dennis Hubel, who sealed key documents in the case, including an internal police bureau investigation; Independent Police Review records; records of previous disciplinary action against the officers; cell phone records; and medical records.
Lawyers for the Chasse family and the news media (including the Portland Tribune) have asked the judge to release those documents; lawyers representing the city have tried to keep them under wraps.
As long as the order remains in place, it remains unclear what information the documents contain. But city lawyers now argue that the documents could turn public opinion against the officers, even if they are ultimately withheld from a jury.
“Releasing irrelevant information, which is inadmissible at trial, could prejudice defendants by resulting in hostility towards them,” wrote Deputy City Attorneys James G Rice and David A Landrum in a May 6 court brief. “City defendants’ concern about potential hostility due to dissemination of irrelevant discovery material is exacerbated by the media scrutiny of Mr. Chasse’s death, including the documentary film, ‘Alien Boy,’ being made about Mr. Chasse.”
The brief was filed in response to a motion by Tom Steenson, the Chasse family’s lawyer, requesting that the documents be unsealed. Steenson had no comment about the motion, the lawsuit or the film.
Deadly encounter in the Pearl District
The deadly encounter took place on Sept. 17, 2006, when Portland police officers saw Chasse walking down Northwest Everett Street near the I-405 overpass. According to published accounts, the officers believed Chasse was “acting odd” and suspected him of urinating against a tree. They followed him for several blocks, catching up with him near the intersection of Northwest 13th Avenue, where they ordered him to halt. Instead, Chasse attempted to run away, prompting Officer Christopher Humphreys to knock him to the ground.
In the ensuing melee, Chasse was tackled, tazered, punched, kicked and hogtied as he struggled desperately against Humphreys, police Sgt. Kyle Nice and Multnomah County sheriff’s Deputy Brett Burton.
The altercation occurred near Bluehour, where several patrons dining al fresco — including developer Homer Williams — witnessed the struggle.