Deptford Township police officer James A. Stuart, 31, was found guilty yesterday of murder and aggravated manslaughter in the January 5, 2013 fatal shooting of 27-year-old friend David Compton in the defendant’s Oak Valley home in Deptford.
At the request of the prosecution, Superior Court Judge Robert P. Becker revoked Stuart’s $250,000 bail and he was placed in jail pending a December 18 sentencing for the two first-degree convictions.
The murder count carries a sentence of 30 years to life in prison.
Manslaughter penalties range from 10 to 30 years in prison,
The jury’s verdict came after two days of deliberation.
Compton, of Woodbury, died at Cooper Medical Center in Camden six days after the shooting from brain damage due to oxygen deprivation, a doctor who treated him testified. Compton’s jaw and two vertebrae in his neck were fractured and his spinal cord was crushed from the bullet that struck him in the cheek, the Gloucester County Medical Examiner testified.
The gun discharge occurred after a night of drinking and dancing at a bar and more drinking at Stuart’s home that left him with a .14 blood alcohol level, a New Jersey State Police chemist testified. A .08 reading is proof of intoxication in New Jersey.
In Stuart’s two-week jury trial, a Deptford police Department firearms instructor called as a prosecution witness said officers were not permitted to use a firearm when intoxicated. Stuart testified he did not believe he was drunk when leaving a Washington Township bar but acknowledged he continued drinking later.
While watching an action movie in Stuart’s living room, Compton, an engineer, asked to see Stuart’s off-duty weapon, which was in an ankle holster he’d just removed, Stuart told the jury in his testimony.. Stuart testified he unloaded the Glock 27 and let Compton “dry-fire” it at “bad guys” on the screen in the movie. He later made sure his Glock 22 service weapon and another handgun were unloaded before letting Compton handle them, he said. He showed Compton how to reload, but never saw him do so, Stuart said. Stuart and Compton were believed to be the only two people in the house at the time, a detective who investigated the shooting testified.
Stuart said he fell asleep for a short time, awakened and picked up the Glock 27 from a sofa, still “positive” it was unloaded, in order to dry-fire it as Compton had done earlier, toward the still- playing movie. But he turned when Compton spoke, Stuart said, and then heard a “loud boom,” unsure of what happened until he saw a small hole in Compton’s cheek. Both were sitting on a sectional sofa in Stuart’s living room.
Stuart’s lawyer, John Eastlack, told the jury the shooting was a “truly horrible accident” and his client tried “desperately” to save Compton’s life by applying pressure to the wound and phoning for emergency medical care.
Assistant Gloucester County Prosecutor Dana Anton said it was Stuart who shot Compton around 5 a.m. in his living room either purposely, knowingly or with extreme indifference to human life-terms which define the charges of murder and manslaughter.
Testimony was heard from the police dispatcher Stuart called after the shooting, emergency medical personnel sent to the Stuart home, police officers and Gloucester County detectives dispatched there, a state chemist who analyzed Stuart’s blood for alcohol and the medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Compton. Defense witnesses included friends of Stuart and Compton, some who were at a bar with them before the shooting, and the defendant himself.
Taking the witness stand Thursday (9/23), Stuart told the jury “unfortunately, I think I did” shoot Compton, but didn’t intend to, and said “I hate myself” for what happened.
“It was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said the Rutgers University graduate. He has been suspended from the police department without pay since his indictment.
In Eastlack’s summation of the case to the jury, he emphasized the close friendship of Stuart and Compton and said his client had “zero motive” and no intent to harm and “did everything he could to save” Compton. “This is not somebody trying to kill his friend,” said Eastlack.
But Anton argued in her closing that “if you use a deadly weapon, there is an intent to kill” and that Stuart was “drunk and playing with guns.” Suggesting that Stuart confused the unloading procedure and left a bullet in his Glock 27, Anton said, “that is not an accident. That’s reckless, because he is drunk.”