PEORIA, AZ — A man is on trial this week for aggravated assault, three years after he was shot in the face by Peoria police during a traffic stop.
Samuel Denk is looking at a decade in prison if convicted of the felony. While he was at the defense table, it was the Peoria sergeant who spent much of the trial's first day being scrutinized.
"It's gruesome. It's graphic. You're not going to want to see it," said the Maricopa County prosecutor in his opening statement.
The shooting happened after a traffic stop near 83rd Avenue and W. Cholla Street, just before 11 p.m. on March 27, 2019.
Sgt. Miller pulled over Samuel Denk for not having "tail lamps."
In the police report, Sgt. Miller told detectives he was cautiously approaching the vehicle because he saw the driver "reaching around" and looking "at him using the mirror."
When Sgt. Miller was walking up to the driver's side door, he was greeted by Denk, who he quickly assessed had a gun in his lap. The following interaction occurred:
"Hey, how's it going?" asks Denk.
"Alright...I'm Sgt. Miller with the Peoria Police Department...Do not reach for that firearm."
"Put your hands on the steering wheel right now," says Sgt. Miller, before yelling the command again.
"Put your hands on the steering whe-(shot fired) -el!"
When asked on the stand Monday why he cussed, Sgt. Miller said, "Because I just had to shoot a human being...and he made me do it."
Sgt. Miller testified he saw Denk move his hands towards the gun in his lap, which is why he shot him in the face.
The question before the jury though -- did Denk commit aggravated assault on Sgt. Miller before that shot was fired?
"Sam did not place this officer in any reasonable fear of serious, physical injury," said defense attorney Jocquese Blackwell in his opening statement. "So we are going to ask that you find him not guilty."
The prosecution though, argued the shooting was a result of the alleged assault.
"His intentional actions caused Sgt. Miller to fear for his life," said prosecutor Sloan Johnson. "Denk looked up and down and moved his hands toward the gun. His fingers touched the gun."
In his initial interview in 2019 Miller told his colleagues investigating the shooting that Denk "grabbed for the gun."
On the stand though, the Sgt. acknowledged, "he did not grab it."
"Why did you fire?" Blackwell asked Sgt. Miller, during cross-examination.
"When he started reaching and his fingertips were on the firearm, that's when I fired."
Blackwell spent at least an hour questioning Sgt. Miller about those seconds before the shooting. His body camera angle did not capture one of Denk's hands in the seconds before the shooting. Blackwell though, put the video in slow motion and repeatedly tried to get Miller to admit Denk's hands were moving up at the time of the shot.
"Did you see his hands go up before you shot him?" asked Blackwell.
"No," replied Sgt. Miller.
"Oh, you didn't? Rewind," said Blackwell, motioning to his colleague.
"After you made the decision to shoot, his hands went up?" asked Mr. Blackwell.
"It appears that way," said Miller.
Miller maintained the entire time that the reason he shot was that Denk touched his weapon with one of his hands, instead of raising his hands to the steering wheel.
Blackwell argued that Denk was not given ample time to comply with the seargent's commands, that his hands were rising at the time of the shot, and that the body camera does not show Denk as aggressive or ever touching the gun.
So much of the case may come down to how the jury perceives Denk, Sgt. Miller, and how they view the body camera footage.
The trial continues the rest of this week.
As we reported in 2021, Denk's lawyer is civilly suing the police department; arguing Denk never made a move for the pistol and that Sgt. Matthew Miller fired his weapon accidentally.