Former Barber County undersheriff acquitted in fatal beanbag shooting
Kansas City, Kan. — A former Kansas undersheriff was acquitted Wednesday in the death of an unarmed man he shot with a defective beanbag round five years ago.
Virgil Brewer was charged with involuntary manslaughter after he shot Steven Myers using his personal shotgun on the evening of Oct. 6, 2017, in rural Sun City.
A Wyandotte County jury deliberated for four hours after a weeklong trial before returning the not-guilty verdict.
It was unclear if Brewer, who has been on unpaid leave from the Barber County Sheriff’s department since his 2018 arrest, would return to his former role.
Brewer and two other officers responded to a call about an armed man on a street after an altercation at a Sun City bar. Myers, who was drunk and had been told to leave the bar, was gone by the time officers arrived. They found him in a shed at a Sun City home. He came out of the shed and Brewer shot him at close range with a beanbag, which split open and emptied pellets into his chest, causing fatal injuries.
Medical examiner Timothy Gorrill ruled Myers’ death a homicide.
During closing arguments Wednesday, assistant attorney general Melissa Johnson said the trial came down to whether Brewer acted recklessly when he shot Myers even though he had no training with beanbag ammunition and had been warned to test it before using it.
She said Brewer showed “willful ignorance” by not undergoing training, leading him to shoot a round too close toward the wrong part of the body and with no idea of the damage it would cause.
“(Brewer) argues that he was not trained so he’s not responsible for what happened,” Johnson said. “That’s not a reasonable argument for anyone to make.”
Defense attorney David Harger countered that prosecutors didn’t meet their burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Brewer’s actions were reckless when he made a split-second decision in a tense and evolving confrontation.
An expert testified at trial that the beanbag round was defective and should never have been sold or distributed, Harger said.
“(Myers’ death) was not from a defective decision,” Harger said. “It resulted from a defective round of ammunition.”
Harger said Brewer was carrying his own weapon because the department couldn’t afford to fully arm all its officers.
Harger said Myers left the shed and walked toward the officers, angrily swearing at them, and made a threatening gesture. Johnson said video from another deputy’s body camera showed Myers was not moving toward the officers and that he complied with their demands before the fatal shot.
Brewer told the Kansas Bureau of Investigation in an interview that Myers was not armed when they confronted him and other officers testified they did not see a weapon. Brewer did not testify at trial.
According to the probable cause affidavit, Brewer told the KBI that he feared for his life and those of his fellow officers when Myers approached them. He also said he did not expect the beanbag round to penetrate Myers’ chest.
Brewer had previously worked as a deputy in Texas. Travis Martin, the deputy at the Freestone County Sheriff’s Office in Texas who gave Brewer the ammunition, testified that he told Brewer to test the ammunition before using it. But the first time Brewer tried it was when he shot Myers, Johnson said.
Proper training would have taught Brewer that rectangular-shaped beanbags can penetrate their targets and that their use has been discontinued for years, according to Bureau Agent Brian Carroll in an affidavit in support of the criminal charge against Brewer. The rounds used today are rounded, balloon-shaped bean bags.
Harger noted that Kansas does not require law enforcement to train to use beanbag ammunition and that training was not economically feasible at the small sheriff’s department.
A civil lawsuit brought by Myers’ family against Brewer and then-Barber County Sheriff Lonnie Small was settled in 2020 after county officials agreed to pay $3.5 million.