Twitches in the Dawes Case

It is not enough to bury your son.
Before the earth has settled upon your boy's casket, you must read that your seventeen-year-old was a juvenile delinquent. Then you must be attacked in the state's largest newspaper as bad parents.

Everyone you know, all of your relatives and all of your friends, complete strangers too, they all get the same message: The highway patrolman blew your child's head off because he was a punk.

And late at night when you sit in bed and you think about that empty room down the hall, the one with all the Pink Floyd posters hanging on the walls, your mind cannot settle upon a single peaceful thought.

Perhaps Jeffrey Dawes was a bad kid. I don't know yet. I do know that nothing I've dug up so far, and certainly nothing the police have leaked to the media, make a convincing case. He drove through a stop sign, once. He had a speeding ticket. He left his driver's license at home when it should have been in his wallet. A couple of years back, he did not have a permit for the moped he was fooling around with. Occasionally, he drank a few beers.

Jeffrey Dawes sounded like any other high school junior who still had a little growing up to do.

On January 28, with his hands raised in surrender, Jeffrey Dawes was shot in the back of the head with a round from a lawman's pistol.

Shortly after midnight, as the teen-age pleasures of a Saturday night evaporated into the realities of a Sunday morning, two officers with the Department of Public Safety (DPS) chased a Pontiac Firebird west on Interstate 10. Both patrolmen were in specially equipped, hot-pursuit Mustangs. The speeds clocked were well in excess of 100 mph.

When the Firebird's driver got out of his car, the two DPS officers already had their guns drawn. As Patrolman Jim French grabbed Dawes, the officer's Sig Sauer semiautomatic pistol discharged. A hollow-point .45-caliber shell tore through Jeffrey's skull. The DPS spokesman, Sergeant Allan Schmidt, immediately told the press that the accidental shooting was the result of a sympathetic muscle reflex. As Officer French attempted to force Dawes to the ground, he grabbed the kid with his left hand and the officer's right hand automatically squeezed off a deadly round. Sergeant Schmidt called it an "involuntary physical reaction." A twitch.

Law enforcement experts then told the media that the twitch was a well-known phenomenon.

"Every new recruit hears about it [the twitch]," said Sergeant Hank Sheerer of the Law Enforcement Officer Advisory Council, Arizona, a body which certifies cops.

And I thought to myself: If I stood before a judge and a jury and told them I'd killed a young boy because of a nervous tic, they would put me in a jail cell for many years.

More to the point, if this sympathetic muscle reflex is so well-known, then why did Officer French grab the teen-ager in such a manner as to force his weapon to fire? Did Officer Jim French violate DPS policy, or is it possible that DPS has no guidelines to prevent such killings?

Last Thursday, Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley, after an extensive investigation into the shooting by the Sheriff's Department, met with William Dawes Jr. and his wife, Dawn. The parents left that meeting with no indication that there would be any prosecution of any peace officer in the death of their son.

An internal probe by DPS, expected to last for another two months, is under way, but Mr. and Mrs. Dawes are not holding their breaths waiting for the state police to admit wrongdoing.

They have hired attorney Richard Treon to get to the bottom of their son's death.

Also present during the meeting with prosecutor Romley were Don and Jodi Carstens. Their boy, Aaron, sixteen, was Jeffrey's passenger on the night of the shooting. They left the County Attorney's Office feeling that they'd wasted their time.

"He acted like he hadn't any familiarity with the case at all," said Jodi Carstens.

Late Thursday afternoon Romley's office issued a press release announcing that there would be no prosecution: "An investigation of the shooting was conducted by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department. A review of that investigation has determined the facts do not warrant the filing of criminal charges against Officer French."

Instead of looking for help from the authorities, Don and Jodi Carstens are concentrating on nurturing their son through the killing of his best friend.

Aaron, who was sitting in the passenger seat when the shooting happened, did not see his buddy fall. Within moments, however, he was on the ground, handcuffed, and then locked in a DPS Mustang.

Officer French then dragged Jeffrey's body from the driver's side of the Pontiac to a place on the roadside directly in front of Aaron Carstens.

Aaron watched the pool of blood under Jeffrey's still head soak and spread onto the desert floor.

The handcuffed teen-ager went wild inside the cop's car.
"He banged his head on the window of the DPS car to try and get someone's attention," said his father. "When an officer came over, he asked if someone could move him to another car because he couldn't stand to see his buddy that way.

"`So, close your eyes' is what they told him."
It would be almost six hours before Aaron Carstens was moved from the scene of the shooting.

For almost a week Aaron Carstens did not return to classes at Saguaro High School.

How could he? His entire world was wrong. Each little detail. Jeffrey Dawes used to pick Aaron up every morning and together they would drive to the campus.

Now it is all Aaron can do to simply fall asleep at night. He told his dad that he just wants to heal.

His parents are hopeful. In the evening when he nods off, Aaron sometimes sees his friend. Jeffrey is alive and smiling and sitting in his Firebird in Aaron's dreams.

In the meantime, Jeffrey's parents must get up each day and go to bed each night in a home gone silent. William and Dawn Dawes live alone now with their memories and their nightmares.

(To be continued)

Don and Jodi Carstens are concentrating on nurturing their son through the killing of his best friend.

The handcuffed teen-ager went wild inside the cop's car.