One Week In: Trial of St. Louis Cops Accused of Beating Luther Hall

Mar 22, 2021 at 4:43 pm
Luther Hall, visible on the ground, is arrested on September 17, 2017. - LAWRENCE BRYANT/COURT EXHIBIT
Luther Hall, visible on the ground, is arrested on September 17, 2017.

The September 17, 2017, police beating of Luther Hall, a Black undercover detective, was brutal. That much is certain. But in the first week of the trial against three white officers accused of variously striking, kicking and slamming him into the ground, the defense strategy has repeatedly returned to uncertainties and gaps in the evidence — at the same time, witness testimony continues to reveal the swirl of chaos and cover-up that erupted after city and police officials learned of the assault that night.

The defendants — Dustin Boone, Steven Korte and Christopher Myers — are each charged with deprivation of rights under the color of law. Their fates will be determined by an all-white jury.

The trial continues this week with witness testimony, including that of now ex-cop Randy Hays, who has already pleaded guilty to federal charges related to beating Hall with a baton.

But prosecutors and defense attorneys have already covered a lot of ground — so let's recap the highlights and what we've learned.

Police inside the protest

September 17 was not Luther Hall's first protest assignment. Two days prior, demonstrators had begun flooding the streets after a city judge announced an acquittal in the murder trial against ex-St. Louis cop Jason Stockley. On September 16, Hall and his partner, Louis Naes, donned street clothes and embedded with protesters in the Delmar Loop area of University City; both officers testified that they sought to identify and film a group of perpetrators who smashed shop windows after the main protest group disbanded earlier that evening.

That was supposed to be the way things played out the next day, when protesters staged a "die in" near the police headquarters downtown. Hall testified that he equipped himself for the September 17 assignment with a phone, a handheld DSLR camera, and a backpack with his police ID. He bought a small, tight-fitting shirt for his undercover outfit that left his waist and midriff exposed — a move intended to show observers he wasn't armed.

Undercover — and alone

Attorney Scott Rosenblum, representing Myers, spent hours of the cross-examination trying to poke holes in Hall's credibility, even arguing at times that it was Hall's behavior that made him appear as a legitimate risk to heavily armored officers on the Civil Disobedience Team.

But Hall's testimony also showed just how isolated the undercover officers were that night. Officers on the ground were not informed of Hall and his partner's mission, and both testified that there was no "safe word" established to identify them to other cops.

The secrecy was intentional, Hall testified. He said previous undercover operations had been exposed by leaks: "In the last protests, the department would put out information and the information would get leaked to the protesters and to the media from police officers," he explained on the stand. "We felt the fewer people that knew about our operation the better."

Using the protesters' tools against them

Hall and Naes both described making accounts on Ustream, the livestreaming platform popular among protesters going back to Ferguson in 2014. Hall's stream is now a key piece of evidence, as prosecutors say it captured the face of officer Christopher Myers during Hall's beating. (Myers is facing an additional charge of destroying evidence for allegedly smashing Hall's phone.)

On the stand, Hall testified he made the switch to Ustream after realizing that the detectives in the department's Real Time Crime Center — a hub for the department's surveillance operations — were already tuning-in to protester livestreams, and for a good reason: While undercover officers were handing in footage at the end of the night, the livestreamers filming the demonstrations provided the cops with literal real-time access to the scenes on the ground.

Hall even attempted to use his Ustream channel to tip-off his police allies about vandalism on Washington Avenue. He said on-stream, "They’re going to fuck up Washington" — but no one was watching his channel. Minutes later, Hall himself would be arrested.

Eye in the sky, pointed elsewhere

Defense attorneys for the accused officers are attempting to raise doubts as to the identification of their clients, an argument aided by the fact that officers deployed to the protest that night did not wear name tags or badges.

Instead, on the night of September 17, the officers who arrested Hall wore heavy body armor and helmets, moved as a group, and deployed behind a line of shield-bearing officers — making them difficult to identify even through the camera lens of a St. Louis American photographer Lawrence Bryant, who shot photos of the arrest near the downtown Central Library.

But, as revealed at trial, the police did have access to a camera with a perfect angle on the action, as it could point directly at the spot where Hall was standing near the intersection of 14th and Olive streets.

The camera was under the control of an unknown officer in the city's Real Time Crime Center, and it was that operator who redirected the camera's view to follow a group of people fleeing down 14th Street toward Washington at the same moment as officers took Hall to the ground.

According to a review of the footage by RFT, the camera spent about five minutes pointed south down 14th Street. Then the camera panned right, resting for less than a single second on the officers around Hall, before moving on to another subject of apparent interest: A person across the street carrying a large homemade shield and a spear-like object.

The camera tracked the mysterious figure for several minutes. By the time the camera view returned to the intersection, Hall and the officers were already gone — a frustrating near-miss that's left investigators, and the public, without crucial evidence of Hall's arrest and the officers who beat him.

Instead of Hall's arrest, a surveillance camera focused on a figure carrying a shield across the street. - SCREENSHOT/COURT EVIDENCE
Instead of Hall's arrest, a surveillance camera focused on a figure carrying a shield across the street.

Beyond cop-on-cop crime

Hall was one of more than 100 people arrested the night of September 17, but only his beating has led to charges against officers. The non-cop-on-cop arrests occurred just a few blocks away, where police surrounded a mixed group of protesters, bystanders and downtown residents at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Tucker Boulevard. Officers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, refusing to let their targets leave the area.

The mass arrest, which came to be known as "the kettle," led to dozens of lawsuits and calls for criminal investigations. In 2019, a class action suit sought to name more than 350 officers involved in the kettle, but left many identified only as John Doe or Jane Doe. One attorney cited officers' "extraordinary measures" to conceal their identities.

On the other side, the commander of the Civil Disobedience Team later testified in a civil hearing that officers considered protesters who wore goggles or masks as a threat, as it indicated "they were wanting some kind of confrontation."

For some officers on the protest detail, the lack of identification was seen as a license for indiscriminate violence, and texts from the officers involved in Hall's beating revealed a startling level of glee at the prospect: On September 15, 2017, Dustin Boone texted, "[I]t's going to be a lot of fun beating the hell out of these shitheads once the sun goes down and nobody can tell us apart!!!"

Despite the widespread violence that night, only Hall's arrest and beating led to criminal charges. Earlier this year, Hall reportedly settled a civil suit with the City of St. Louis for $5 million — a sum that will likely stick in the mind of the dozens of others who say they suffered the same treatment.

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]
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