The current environment is anything but favorable to police officers, especially in fatal officer-involved shootings. Despite this challenge, HCB attorneys recently prevailed in a federal civil jury trial on behalf of a police officer, arising out of a fatal, on-duty shooting. The trial lasted one week and took place in Rockford, Illinois, before the Honorable Iain Johnston.
The suit arose from an incident that occurred in March 2017 in northwestern Illinois. The officer was responding to a call of suspicious persons on the outskirts of the small town. He was shortly thereafter joined by a deputy sheriff. While these officers were dealing with the first person they encountered, the decedent walked out from behind a storage shed with his right hand concealed behind his back. The officer repeatedly ordered the subject to show his hands.
But the decedent kept walking towards the officer, refusing to stop or show his hands even after the officer drew his gun and pointed it towards the ground. Then, he suddenly snapped his previously concealed hand forward towards the officer in a “shooting stance.” The officer also saw something grey and metallic in the suspect’s arms and fired numerous shots, retreated, and fired again when the decedent again thrust his hands forward in a shooting motion. One of the shots proved fatal.
An Illinois State Police investigation determined that the deceased was holding a penlight, not a gun. The investigation also revealed that the deceased was also high on methamphetamine—so high that his blood methamphetamine levels approached toxicity. And, while the shooting was not captured on the officer’s dash camera, there were two civilian eyewitnesses.
HCB attorneys called both eyewitnesses at trial. One was the decedent’s own childhood friend. This friend denied that the decedent had anything in his hands but conceded that the decedent definitely made “a gun gesture” towards the officers and had been acting “out of his mind” with a “done caring” attitude that morning. The other, a village maintenance worker, saw the incident from a distance but testified that it “definitely looked like” the decedent was “shooting at the officers” from his vantage point.
HCB attorneys also presented expert testimony. A ballistics expert explained that the physical evidence and wound trajectory made it “highly probable” that the deceased was in a shooting stance when struck with the fatal shot. A toxicologist noted the extreme levels of methamphetamine in the decedent’s blood and that such levels cause aggressive, deluded, and reckless behavior. A police procedures expert testified that the officer’s conduct was consistent with generally accepted police training and standards. Ultimately, the defense argued to the jury that even though the deceased did not actually have a gun, any reasonable officer in this scenario would have believed that he or she was facing a significant risk of death or great bodily harm and acted in self-defense. The jury agreed and delivered a defense verdict in about two hours.
The officer was represented by Hervas, Condon, and Bersani partners Mike Bersani and David Mathues. Former HCB associate Tony Fioretti provided significant help in working up the case. The outcome illustrates that even in the contemporary environment, the combination of key favorable facts and a thoughtful, strong defense can lead to a jury vindicating police officers in an excessive force case. The attorneys at HCB can provide legal and practice advice for managing risk in use-of-force cases. As always, please feel free to contact us if you have questions or concerns.