The autopsy report for Paige Schmidt Pierce, fatally shot during an April traffic pursuit, will not change her family’s intent to sue, their attorney said July 13.
Also, the high levels of certain drugs found in Pierce’s system do not change the fact that she is worthy of justice or justify her shooting by a Delta County Sheriff’s Office deputy, family attorney Kevin Mehr said.
Pierce, 26, died of three gunshot wounds, fired as she drove her car toward Delta County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Nolan Davis at a high rate of speed April 9.
Davis fired eight rounds. Two struck Pierce’s head and neck, while a third hit her neck and chest. The bullet from that shot descended to puncture her lung; all shots were consistent with having been fired at a distance, according to Pierce’s autopsy report.
Mehr on July 13 pointed to the trajectory of the fatal wounds — to the side and back of the head, he said.
“I think that says a lot about Officer Davis’ decision-making and how avoidable this was,” he said.
Davis was not charged in the shooting, nor was he found to have violated sheriff’s office internal policies.
District Attorney Seth Ryan, in reviewing the investigation performed by the 7th Judicial District Critical Incident Team, announced in June that the evidence could not overcome an assertion of self-defense.
On April 9, Davis was on patrol on Colorado 92 near Hotchkiss, with a civilian accompanying him as part of the agency’s ride-along program.
According to the DA’s findings, the deputy spotted a vehicle without license plates “tailgating” another vehicle, and he attempted to pull it over. Its driver, later identified as Pierce, began driving at a high rate of speed, causing some other motorists to pull over and let her by.
A road worker reported waving frantically to get her attention as Pierce’s vehicle shot toward him; the worker noted the side road Pierce turned onto and signaled to Davis. The deputy followed Pierce onto Hidden Springs Road.
The report details the rest of the chase, which continued for a short time after Pierce hit spike strips that began deflating her driver’s side tires. She turned onto a private driveway. Davis got out of his vehicle next to a parked truck; he was not able to see Pierce’s car and thought she had either slowed down at another part of the drive, or fled on foot.
Instead, she had made a three-point turn in the driveway, and came barreling between the truck and Davis’ unit, the DA’s report indicates. She drove straight toward the deputy who told investigators, “I thought, I’m about to die.’”
Witnesses on scene told investigators that Davis, after exiting his vehicle, yelled “stop” as Pierce bore down, and the woman riding with the deputy raised her arms as if to brace for impact.
Davis opened fire. The shot that struck the top of Pierce’s head was instantly fatal.
Pierce’s death and the DA’s charging decision sparked outcry from the family and a protest the day Ryan announced the decision and released the report.
The chase itself did not have to happen and Pierce was just scared, her family has said.
Mehr on Tuesday also responded to the findings in the autopsy that Pierce had high levels of methamphetamine, fentanyl and the chemical components of heroin in her bloodstream when she died.
“Frankly, so what? We’re not hiding that Paige struggled with addiction. It is something she was battling and working on,” Mehr said.
“But it’s pretty meaningless to the actions Officer Davis took. He didn’t know that (drug levels). It doesn’t make Paige’s life any less valuable.”
Mehr recently received the DA’s investigation and is going through “a humongous amount of documents and videos” to determine what claims will be filed.
“We’re certainly going to file suit,” he said.
Mehr said a formal complaint could be filed within a few weeks, and could entail allegations that Pierce’s rights under both state and federal law were violated. The family could seek both compensation and policy changes.
“I think the body camera is pretty clear it was avoidable. Paige should still be here,” said Mehr.