Case Study

Did police officer murder his friend?
A jury is weighing that question for a second time

June 2015 – August 2018

Case Description

A jury is weighing that question for a second time

James A. Stuart was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2015 after a jury convicted him of knowing murder and aggravated manslaughter in the shooting death of David Compton, 27, in 2013.

Joseph P.Howard arguing the case of accidental shooting
Defense attorney Joseph Howard displays evidence during closing arguments in James Stuart’s trial.

Read the full article by Matt Gray  on

The Case

James A. Stuart was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2015 after a jury convicted him of knowing murder and aggravated manslaughter in the shooting death of David Compton, 27, in 2013.

Stuart appealed the verdict on several points and an appellate court last year ruled that errors in jury instructions were serious enough to warrant a new trial.

David Stuart, 34, has testified that he was showing Compton his service weapons at Stuart’s home. The defendant claimed that he fell asleep on the couch as he sat with Compton, with the gun lying unloaded between them. When he woke up, he said, he accidentally fired a single round that had been left in the chamber of the pistol.

Following the first trial, the appellate court found that by convicting Stuart of both murder and aggravated manslaughter, jurors concluded that he acted with “distinctly different mental states.”

While the charge of knowing murder requires that the defendant knew for certain that his actions would result in Compton’s death, the charge of aggravated manslaughter meant he showed a conscious disregard for the risk that his friend would die.

Trial Summary

The Shooting

The incident began with Compton asking to see his gun, Stuart testified.

Stuart drank as many as eight to 10 alcoholic beverages on the night of the shooting, according to court testimony. As the pair watched the movie “Dredd” at Stuart’s house following a visit to a pub with friends, he testified that Compton asked to see his gun, a Glock 27, and the two began “dry-firing” it at the TV screen.

Stuart claimed during his first trial that he fell asleep and that Compton apparently loaded and unloaded the Glock, and inadvertently left a live round in the chamber.

Stuart said he woke up a short time later, grabbed the gun and pointed it at the TV, intending to again fire what he thought was an unloaded weapon. As he prepared to pull the trigger, Compton spoke, causing Stuart to turn toward him.

“I started to pull back the trigger and I heard Dave start to speak,” Stuart testified during his first trial. “When I turned to look at him, I guess my hand turned with me. I heard a loud boom.”

Just before 5 a.m., Stuart called a non-public phone line at the county’s police communications center to report the shooting. “We had a, a, a man, he was ah playing with a weapon, it was loaded and ah he, there was a shot fired,” Stuart says in the call.

Stuart said he removed the gun and two others he had shown Compton from the room and put them upstairs in his bedroom to clear space for the paramedics.

Compton’s family didn’t buy Stuart’s account of the shooting. They returned for the second trial and sat in the front row behind the prosecutor, with Stuart’s family sitting across the aisle.

Six of Stuart’s friends took the stand Monday to offer testimony about his character. They described Stuart and Compton as longtime friends who never had serious arguments that they witnessed. A few joined the pair for drinks at a Washington Township pub hours before the shooting.

When they left the bar around 2 a.m., the rest of the group went to a diner, while Stuart and Compton headed to Stuart’s house.

The Defense

During closing arguments on Thursday, defense attorney Joseph Howard told the jury that Compton’s death wasn’t murder, but an accident.

“This is a case about an accidental shooting,” Howard said, as he reviewed the evidence presented during the trial.

That was the same conclusion township police came to as they investigated the shooting scene, Howard said, pointing to testimony that the scene was never secured as it would be if police believed a crime had occurred.

He noted that Stuart’s guns were not examined for DNA evidence or fingerprints, that Stuart was allowed back into the house to secure his dog as police investigated, that he was not searched and that he was driven to police headquarters in the front seat of a cop car.

“It was treated as an accidental shooting,” Howard told the jurors.

The view of the shooting changed when investigators with the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office got involved.

Howard noted that a witness from the office, Detective John Petroski, testified that county dispatch’s handling of Stuart’s call was “terrible” and that Deptford police’s handling of the case was “less than professional.”

The defense attorney also argued that no one in the trial has claimed Stuart is free of blame over Compton’s death.

“I reiterate to you that there has not been a moment where someone has come in to talk to you about how James Stuart is blameless,” he said. “But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re taking about whether he’s guilty of murder.”

“Based on the evidence presented to you, I trust that you will deliberate as a body and come to a conclusion that this was in fact a terrible accident and nothing more.”

Howard also referenced the testimony of Stuart’s police supervisor, who described the former officer’s five-year, unblemished service record.

The Prosecution

Assistant Prosecutor Dana Anton told the jury they could find Stuart guilty of murder, aggravated manslaughter or manslaughter.

To prove Stuart guilty of murder, the state must show that he knowingly caused Compton’s death, but does not have to prove a motive.

To prove aggravated manslaughter, it must prove that Stuart caused Compton’s death through reckless actions that demonstrated an indifference to human life.

And in order to prove him guilty of manslaughter, prosecutors must prove that Stuart caused Compton’s death only through reckless actions.

If Stuart’s version of events is accurate, he’s still guilty of aggravated manslaughter, Anton argued.

First, he handled guns while he was drinking. “Having his gun out and handling his weapon while he’s intoxicated is against all of the training he has received for the safe handling of firearms,” she said.

Then he displayed the gun to someone not authorized to use it, which was another violation. “Not only did he display it, but he played with it,” Anton said. “He was playing with a gun.”

Then he left the gun unattended around someone not authorized to handle it as he fell asleep. When he awoke, he pointed the weapon at Compton and that in itself was a crime, she added.

All of these factors add up to reckless indifference, Anton said.

“The defendant wants you to believe his is a victim of circumstance. That he’s nothing more than negligent, and that’s just not true.”

On the suggestion that police initially thought the shooting was an accident, Anton conceded that Deptford police mishandled the crime scene. She suggested they were giving Stuart preferential treatment because he was a colleague.

Investigators were also hampered, however, by how Stuart described what had happened when he called the dispatcher, she said. Anton replayed the recording of his phone call. “If (police) were acting like it was an accident, it’s because of what they heard,” she said.

Anton also questioned Stuart’s credibility and sincerity in offering testimony, and questioned if his version of events made sense.

While Stuart claimed he rendered aid to his friend before putting away the guns, blood evidence — including the lack of blood upstairs where the guns were stored — suggests that he put the guns away before he tried to help Compton, she said.

“All this time, meanwhile, David is downstairs dying,” Anton told the jury. “Self-preservation is the only reason to leave the side of his dying friend. You just accidentally, in his words, shoot your friend, and you’re going away putting guns away, doing whatever you need to do around the house instead of sitting with your friend who’s dying?”

Superior Court Judge M. Christine Allen-Jackson gave instructions to the jury Thursday afternoon and deliberations began around 3 p.m.

Final Result

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