During his first press conference after agreeing to represent the family of a black forklift operator shot in cold blood by a white North Charleston police officer, Atlanta attorney Chris Stewart was asked whether he believed race played a role.
His answer surprised those expecting a race provocateur and disappointed others hoping for a fiery condemnation.
“I don’t know,” said Stewart, who is black. “I think it’s reckless for lawyers and civil rights figures to immediately call someone a racist. I didn’t have any proof of that. To this day I haven’t found that Officer [Michael] Slager had racist tendencies or anything like that.”
That measured approach has helped Stewart emerge an one of the more prominent voices in the national debate on police use of force. It has also helped bring Stewart a steady stream of clients who lost loved ones at the hands of police, yet has earned him some respect among law enforcement officials.
“I was impressed with his thoughtfulness,” said Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan, who reached out to Stewart after the attorney appeared on a recent panel discussing the relationship between cops and communities they serve. “It can be difficult to have these conversations we need to have because some people will just throw out wild accusations without listening to the other side.”
But beyond his even temperament, Stewart’s clients appreciate his ability to secure settlements in cases that have traditionally been among the most difficult to win.
North Charleston agreed to pay $6.5 million to the family of Walter Scott, whose harrowing death was captured on video. Slager, the officer who shot him eight times in the back, has been charged with Scott’s murder.
When Stewart, 37, took the case, that video had not yet surfaced, said Anthony Scott, the dead man’s brother, who learned of young lawyer through a cousin.
“It was just being covered locally at the time,” Scott said. “There was no way he could’ve known the case would take off the way it did.”
Scott said he knew little about Stewart, except that he successfully sued the City of East Point for the death of Gregory Towns, tased 14 times over 29 minutes by two officers even after he was handcuffed. The officers said they deployed their Tasers to try to force Towns to stand up and walk.
His clients include the family of Alton Sterling, the Baton Rouge, La., man fatally shot last month by police. That shooting, captured on cell phone video, sparked protests nationwide and raised tensions to a boil between police and the black community. Nearly two weeks after Sterling’s death, a lone black gunman from Missouri, targeting police, shot six local officers and deputies, killing three.
Stewart also represents the parents of Chase Sherman, a Destin, Fla., man, who while under the influence of bath salts, was tased to death by two Coweta County deputies and the family of Bobby Daniels, a Navy veteran and CNN Center security guard shot dead by Douglas County police as he tried to calm a troubled son.
Working these cases, he said, is often more about negotiation, politics and peacemaking, than law.
“You’re not just lawyering,” Stewart said. “In the Scott case we’d be on the phone with the mayor, the governor and the hood. Certain people in the community wanted to do their thing. I’m brokering a deal between this group who wanted to protest but weren’t allowed and the mayor who wanted to send the riot police.”
Unlikely career path
Stewart, a personal injury attorney, said he had no intention of becoming “that lawyer who’s always suing the police.”
Then again, his life - both professionally and personally - has never followed a script.
The youngest of four children raised by working class parents in the tough section of Atlanta “between Cascade and Campbellton roads,” he received his master’s degree in public health from Tulane University.
He didn’t decide to go to law school until 13 years ago. But he was driven to be great, said his mentor, Atlanta attorney Keenan Nix, who gave Stewart his first job as a lawyer in 2005 even though he wasn’t looking to hire anyone.
“Chris is a walking exclamation point,” Nix said. “He was destined for this calling from birth. He just had to recognize that, and then pursue it. He’s not trying to be Al Sharpton or Johnnie Cochran.”
Unique view on race
In ninth grade Stewart, following his sisters’ lead, received a tuition scholarship and transferred to Lovett, a private school in north Atlanta. It’s about a 30-minute drive from his Southwest Atlanta neighborhood but it might as well have been a different planet.
“I had never been around white people,” said Stewart, one of about a half dozen black students in his class. “When you grow up where I did you never left your comfort zone. My mom would pull up [to the school] in a station wagon and I see a kid pull up in Porsche.”
Initially, he struggled to co-exist with his more privileged white classmates. Cultural differences led to misunderstandings and a few fistfights. But it’s an experience that Stewart said changed him for the better.
“People who think every white person is racist hasn’t hung around a lot of white people,” he said. “White people who are scared of every black person haven’t been around many black people. I was probably the first black person they had spent time around. They were trying to reach out but hadn’t really interacted. But their intentions were good.”
That experience at Lovett has helped inform his opinions on law enforcement. Most officers, he said, are “good guys.”
“I turn down 90 percent of the requests I get for police cases,” Stewart said. “I don’t want to ever be the guy who takes down an innocent officer.”
Which is not to say he pulls his punches against law enforcement.
“These abuse cases are more about power,” he said. “In the Gregory Towns case, the two officers who tased him were black. The victim was black. They just wanted him to jump when they said jump. Knowing that you probably won’t have any repercussions heightens the few cops that are addicted to that power lust.”
Stewart said he always glad to engage in dialogue but believes the onus for healing the rift between citizens and police lies with those in charge.
“This could all end immediately if the powers that be wanted it to,” he said. “They know how to end it. Put the strictest, no-nonsense officers in an investigative unit, or farm it out. No tolerance policies by the chiefs. Let their officers know they’re not going to put up with any nonsense. No off-the-records policies.”
“There’s no other job where you can take someone’s life or liberty,” he said.