In Trial of St. Louis Cops, Beaten Black Detective Blamed for 'Threatening' Actions

Mar 18, 2021 at 8:58 am
click to enlarge Luther Hall, visible on the ground in a photo captured during the September 17, 2017 protests and reviewed during trial. - LAWRENCE BRYANT/COURT EXHIBIT
Luther Hall, visible on the ground in a photo captured during the September 17, 2017 protests and reviewed during trial.

On the night of September 17, 2017, after the beatings and arrests had subsided, St. Louis officer Louis Naes returned to his office to find his partner, Luther Hall, a Black detective and fellow undercover officer. Hall was uploading the photos and video footage he had captured that night.

"He looked dazed," Naes recalled from the witness stand in federal court Wednesday. "He didn't look himself."

Both officers had been deployed undercover that night posing as protesters, with assignments to blend in with the groups flooding the streets in response to the acquittal of ex-St. Louis cop Jason Stockley. But the night had not gone as planned.

Like dozens of protesters that night, Naes and Hall had been arrested. Hours after their release, however, Naes testified that he'd been shocked at the condition of Hall's battered and cut face, and even more so at his explanation:

"He told me that he got his ass kicked by the police," Naes said.

More than three years later, the September 17 beating of Luther Hall — the same night as the infamous "kettle" in which officers rounded up more than 100 people in a brutal mass arrest — continues to be a defining moment of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. A total of five officers have been indicted for various roles in Hall's beating and attempts at a coverup. Two have already pleaded guilty to federal charges. The criminal trial of the remaining defendants, Dustin Boone, Christopher Myers, Steven Korte, kicked off Tuesday in front of an all-white jury.

On Wednesday, as attorneys for the three officers delivered their separate opening statements and cross-examined the prosecution's first witnesses, a common theme seemed to form: A strategy of suggesting that Hall, through his own actions, invited the beating from his fellow cops.

The theme began with attorney John Rogers, whose client, city cop Steve Kortes, was indicted in 2019 on charges he violated Hall's civil rights and provided false statements to the FBI. Rogers's opening remarks blasted the department for "institutional deficient planning" and failing to inform commanders of the existence of two undercover officers in the field that night.

More than that, no "safe word" was established for the officers to signal their uniformed counterparts on the street; In Rogers's telling, it was these administrative failings, combined with Hall's own behavior, which led to the chaotic beating and bungled criminal investigation.

Rogers described the lead-up to Hall's beating, starting at about 8:50 p.m. As officers downtown began the mass arrests, a column of officers clad in riot gear marched down 14th Street toward Olive, where Hall was standing near a young Black man.

At the time, the officers on the Civil Disobedience Teams had been alerted to reports of two Black males involved in breaking windows and pushing over flower pots, Rogers said. But Hall had chosen to "flee" with the other man, and instead of facing the officers with his hands up, Rogers accused Hall of hiding behind an electrical box.

Hall could have raised his hands and complied with the demands of the officers, "thereby not threatening" them, Rogers argued; instead, Hall "stood up" and was immediately thrown to the ground multiple times and beaten with a baton wielded by officer Randy Hays. (Hays has already pleaded guilty to assault and is expected to be called as a witness for the prosecution at some point in the trial.)

Rogers' arguments also touched on Hall's behavior after the beating, focusing on the detective's inconsistencies and refusal to cooperate with investigators. At first, Rogers noted, Hall had not been forthcoming about his injuries and told medical staff that he'd fallen on the job.

The result of Hall's actions, the attorney concluded, was a critical delay in the department's investigation, allowing a "rumor mill" to swirl through the department. According to Rogers, this dysfunction ultimately led to the charges against Kortes, an innocent cop who was actually standing more than twenty feet from Hall during the beating.

The impact of Hall's decision to "hide" behind an electrical box returned during the cross-examination of Naes, Hall's white partner. Naes been arrested that same night and released unharmed.

Defense attorney Scott Rosenblum, representing Christopher Myers, attempted to press Naes into acknowledging that Hall had "created a situation" that would make him appear as a threat to other officers.

"If police officers were approaching would you hide in a dark, small area and secret yourself? Does that sound like a safe situation?" Rosenblum asked.

However, available evidence complicates this argument: Photos from St. Louis American photographer Lawrence Bryant showed Hall standing upright behind an electrical box just off the street corner. The box is not an enclosed space, but rather an object that Hall is standing behind. The photos do not show him crouching or on the ground, at least, not until he reappears with his face against the sidewalk beneath multiple officers.

click to enlarge Luther Hall is visible on the right, standing upright behind an electrical box, as riot cops surge. Attorneys displayed nearly 200 photos on Wednesday. - LAWRENCE BRYANT/EVIDENCE
Luther Hall is visible on the right, standing upright behind an electrical box, as riot cops surge. Attorneys displayed nearly 200 photos on Wednesday.

The strategy of attacking Hall's behavior is notable for its two-sidedness: No one, including the defense attorneys, is disputing that Hall was beaten on September 17. The case has already resulted in a reported civil settlement from the City of St. Louis for $5 million, and, in the current trial, prosecutors say they plan to call multiple officers to testify against their former colleagues.

It appears that attorneys for Myers, Boone and Korte are weaving a larger argument about the chaos of the arrest itself, one that doesn't just rely on disputing the evidence placing their clients in the scrum, but framing the investigation itself as critically flawed due to Hall's "obstruction" and, as Rosenblum put it, "creating a situation that would cause fellow police officers to think you are some risk or danger."

The trial continues today as both sides gear-up for witness testimony.

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]
  • Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get the latest on the news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.
  • Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.