A recent James Madison University graduate spent Monday in Charlottesville Circuit Court as his lawyer argued that when he bloodied the nose of a police officer last year that he didn’t realize it was a cop he’d punched.
The argument didn’t work. The jury found that William Bennett Stimpson, now 23, committed felony assault of a law enforcement officer when he hit Officer Chandler Lee.
“Police officers have an extremely difficult job, and our office felt that Mr. Stimpson’s conduct warranted a felony prosecution,” prosecutor Cooper Vaughan said in an emailed statement. “I am pleased that the jury agreed and held him accountable for his actions.”
Lee and another officer testified, but the trial’s star witness may have been the video and audio footage from their body-worn cameras.
“Do you want me to f***ing f*** you up?” Stimpson can be heard screaming as he begins attacking Officer Lee. “I will f*** you up, you b****.”
The trouble began on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, the Halloween weekend, Officer Lee testified. Around 1 a.m., Lee and Stimpson had their encounter near 14th Street and the Boylan Heights restaurant. The area was crowded with costume-clad Halloween revelers, and streetlights and storefronts offered the only illumination.
These factors made quickly determining who is an actual police officer difficult, the defense asserted.
Testimony showed Lee was walking eastward on Main Street behind Stimpson when Stimpson delivered an open-handed slap to the face of Stimpson’s longtime girlfriend, a UVa student. Lee’s body-worn video camera captured what happened next.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Lee began shouting as he came up behind Stimpson.
The video showed Stimpson suddenly turning, lunging, shouting, and then hurling what a fellow officer would describe as “haymaker” punches at Officer Lee before ultimately getting subdued by the jolt of a Taser from another officer.
The key question for the jury was whether Stimpson knew, or had reason to believe, he was attacking a cop.
In court Monday, Lee testified that, with exception of his hat and an additional piece of gear on his ballistic vest, he dressed for the courtroom just as he dressed for his shift on the Corner. At the request of the prosecutor, Lee stood and pointed to various implements, including badge, microphone, body-cam, radio, Taser, weapon, ammunition magazine, and baton.
There are police insignias on both shoulders and upon the hat he was wearing that night, Lee noted.
“When someone is standing in front of you in a police uniform, that is reason to know,” said the prosecutor.
What was missing, countered defense attorney Rhonda Quagliana, were larger indicators like the words on Lee’s back, in contrasting block letters, that simply read “POLICE.” The video confirmed Quagliana’s assertion that her client couldn’t see Lee’s back in the seconds before he lunged.
In her cross-examination of Lee, Quagliana seemed to suggest that instead of saying, “Hey, hey, hey,” that Lee should have said something like “Stop, police,” “Put your hands up,” or “You’re under arrest,” something to clearly indicate that he was law enforcement.
Quagliana tried but failed to convince the judge to admit evidence that Lee’s words were inconsistent with proper police procedures. So she showed the jury still video images of people wearing baseball hats similar to Lee’s.
“There are a bunch of people out there wearing dark clothing and baseball caps, and the officer was wearing dark clothing and a baseball cap,” noted Quagliana.
After Stimpson was Tased, cuffed and sitting on the sidewalk, a superior officer arrived to investigate the use of force and jokingly asked Lee, as heard on another bodycam, if he has a “punchable face.”
Lee replies, “I don’t even think he had time to look at my face.”
Quagliana called this “the most important evidence in this case,” an admission, she said, that Stimpson, who goes by the name of “Will,” may not have realized that he was attacking an officer.
“You can’t exclude the possibility that Will turned around to fight some random dude,” she told the jury in her closing.
By then, the prosecutor had shown another video, which captures the Tasing of Stimpson as a woman shouts defeatedly, “We’re done, we’re done.” On this video, Stimpson can be heard saying, “Hey, good thing you got your Taser, bro, because I was about to f*** you up.”
“He knew,” concluded the prosecutor.
While it questioned the two prosecution witnesses, the defense offered no witnesses of its own and Stimpson did not testify. His attorney did tell the jury that her client recently pleaded guilty to assault and battery for the slap of his girlfriend.
“He’s a young guy, and the decision that you will make today will affect him for the rest of his life,” Quagliana said.
The seven-man and five-woman group studied the evidence. One juror expressed a wish to re-watch the videos and they were given a flash-drive and large video screen to view all the exhibits. They asked for the definition of the term “reason to know.” Their deliberations lasted more than three hours.
Sitting between her husband and daughter, Stimpson’s mother, a former Stafford County supervisor, quietly sniffled and even before the jury forewoman delivered the decision. Stimpson’s girlfriend sat with the family throughout the daylong proceeding.
The defendant and his lawyer declined post-trial comment, but longtime criminal defense lawyer Scott Goodman said the trial seems to have resulted, at least in part, from a recent exodus of police officers and the desire of the city prosecutor to support those who remain.
“This is a tougher philosophy now in the Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office,” says Goodman. “There was a time when a young man with no prior record who had gotten involved in a case like this might see the Commonwealth Attorney reduce the charge to a misdemeanor.”
Goodman says the city police department is operating at about 75 percent of its full size, with a deficit of about 30 officers. The city has terminated two police chiefs since 2017 and set up an independent oversight board to judge officer actions.
“Many police officers have left the force thinking the city doesn’t have their back,” said Goodman.
“If people in Charlottesville get charged with assault on a police officer, the word is out that they will face felony charges,” says Goodman. “They’re not going to get a break. The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office will prosecute as it’s charged.”
Virginia law provides a mandatory minimum six-month jail sentence for assaulting an officer, with a maximum of five years. The assault and battery of his girlfriend is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of one year.
The Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge, Richard Moore, said in court that he hoped to render both sentences before the end of November when he retires.
Stimpson remains free on bond.