Tuesday, 30 September 2014 00:00

Jury finds CMPD officer liable, awards $500,000 in Taser death

Written by Michael Gordon | Charlotte Observer

A federal jury decided Thursday that a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer used excessive force in the 2011 death of a man who died after being twice shocked by the officer’s Taser. After a day and a half of deliberations, the jury in the civil case awarded the parents of La-Reko Williams $500,000. Williams died July 20, 2011, after being shocked twice by Officer Michael Forbes.

Forbes was not charged with a crime and remains a patrol officer with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

However, the award marked the third time this year that the city has paid a settlement or jury award in a case involving CMPD’s use of force.

Another CMPD officer faces criminal charges and a lawsuit in the fatal shooting of Jonathan Ferrell a year ago.

The verdict in the Taser case also comes against the backdrop of the police shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. That death left the St. Louis suburb in turmoil and had the trial judge in the Williams case grilling potential jurors on whether they could separate the Missouri case from the lawsuit they were about to hear.

“We are really happy that justice was served,” said Karonnie Truzy of Greensboro, one of the attorneys for Williams’ parents.

“This sends a strong statement to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police that the citizens are aware, and they are not taking things for granted. They’re not allowing an officer to get a freebie.”

The jury’s award against Forbes will be paid by the city. After the verdict, City Attorney Bob Hagemann described Williams’ death as “tragic yet unintended.” He also stood by the police officer.

“While we continue to believe that Officer Forbes acted reasonably in a very difficult situation, our judicial system has spoken and we respect the jury’s decision,” Hagemann said.

Charlotte attorney Lori Keeton, who was hired by the city to defend Forbes during the trial, declined comment Thursday.

Williams’ parents, Temako McCarthy and Anthony Williams, had asked for $3.5 million in damages in their wrongful death lawsuit against Forbes.

The lawsuit accused the officer of causing the death of the 21-year-old Williams three years ago when Forbes responded to a call about a fight at a light-rail station.

The complaint originally named the city, police Chief Rodney Monroe and Taser International Inc. as other targets. But they were either dropped by the plaintiffs or granted immunity by U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn before the trial.

The jurors showed signs of having difficulty reaching a decision, telling the judge Wednesday afternoon that they were deadlocked. Their verdict came after 14 hours of deliberations.

The fatal standoff between Forbes and Williams lasted little more than a minute.

The officer answered a 911 call that night at the Woodlawn light-rail station in Charlotte about a fight between a man and a woman, later identified as Williams and girlfriend Destiny Franklin.

The judge gave Forbes immunity for the first shot from his Taser, which Forbes says took place after Williams tried to leave the scene, ignored the officer’s orders and shoved him twice.

The attorneys for Williams’ parents say their son was nearly helpless from the first Taser shock when Forbes fired the second.

Williams’ heart stopped beating soon afterward.

Forbes testified that he fired the second shock because he felt threatened by Williams, who the officer says continued to ignore commands and was trying to get to his feet.

Williams died the day after a jury awarded a $10 million judgment in a fatal use of a Taser by police on a Charlotte teenager in 2009. On appeal, the amount was first reduced, then set aside.

Nationwide, more than 550 people have died after being shocked with a Taser. The weapons are designed to be nonlethal alternatives to guns, intended to incapacitate suspects without seriously injuring them. Taser International says the device has saved thousands of lives.

A 2012 study, however, found that the electric barbs can set off irregular heart rhythms, leading to cardiac arrest. Critics say the voltage can vary significantly from weapon to weapon.

After Williams’ death, Chief Monroe pulled the police department’s entire Taser arsenal off the street. Later that year, the Charlotte City Council spent almost $2 million acquiring safer models, and CMPD officers were told to aim their Tasers below the chest.

The jury award in the Williams case marks the third time this year the city will have paid in a legal case involving police.

Last month, the city agreed to a $115,000 out-of-court settlement with Jeffery Green after the Charlotte teenager was wounded by a police officer in 2010 as he came to the aid of his wounded mother. Green was carrying a knife at the time, and the officer mistook him for the mother’s attacker and shot him twice.

In January, the city paid $700,000 to the family of a cellphone tower repairman fatally shot on the job in 2006 after police were dispatched to a potential break-in.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall Kerrick faces a voluntary manslaughter charge and a lawsuit stemming from his September 2013 fatal shooting of Ferrell. Ferrell, who was unarmed, was hit 10 times. Kerrick’s attorneys say the shooting was justified.

Three of the four cases involved a black suspect and a white police officer.

During jury selection, Cogburn released one potential member who said his impartiality had been compromised by the events in Ferguson, Mo.

The Forbes trial wound up being heard by an all-white jury of five women and three men. Family attorney Truzy, who is black, said the race of the eight people deciding the case raised some early questions in his mind.

“What this jury did in this case was to show the compassion and work ethic to do the right thing,” he said. “That jury was determined to do the right thing not only for the plaintiffs but for the defendant, too, and to make sure their decision spoke justice.” ERIN BACON CONTRIBUTED.

Link to original article from The Charlotte Observer

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