Jury finds Charlotte police officer liable for Taser death

Published: Aug. 28, 2014 at 6:32 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 27, 2014 at 5:18 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - A federal jury decided on Thursday that a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer used excessive force in the 2011 death of a man who died after being twice shocked by the police officer's Taser.

The federal civil court verdict came in the second day of deliberations by the five women and three men who had to determine whether CMPD Officer Michael Forbes used excessive force in the death of La-Reko Williams.

Williams' parents, Temako McCarthy and Anthony Williams, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the officer, asking for $3.5 million in damages.

The lawsuit accused Forbes of causing the death of 21-year-old Williams the night of July 20, 2011, when the police officer responded to call about a fight at a light-rail station.

The jurors showed signs of having difficulty reaching a decision.

A little more than two hours into their deliberations on Wednesday, the jurors sent the judge a note asking for more information about "objectionable reasonableness," a legal cornerstone in court cases involving police response.

Basically, that legal standard means the jury had to decide whether Forbes, given what he faced that night, responded as other "reasonable" officers would have done. (The Supreme Court decision establishing the standard originated from a Charlotte case in the mid-1980s.)

After talking with attorneys on both sides, the judge told the jurors to reconsider his instructions from Monday. At the plaintiff's request, he also included his comments on a citizen's right to be free from excessive police force.

Then, shortly before 5 p.m., jurors came back to ask the judge another question. They next told the judge they could not reach a verdict, one of the family's attorneys told the Observer.

The judge then sent the eight back to the jury room to resume their work. After about 90 minutes, he released them for the night. The jurors returned to work Thursday morning and delivered their verdict at lunchtime.

The fatal standoff between Forbes and Williams three years ago 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. Testimony in the weeklong trial identified the couple as Williams and Destiny Franklin, his girlfriend at the time.

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 claimed was trying to get to his feet.

The officer, who wore his uniform to court each day, was not charged with a crime and remains on the force.

During the trial, both sides went to great lengths to frame the pivotal second shock for the jury.

On Monday, Forbes teamed with an assistant city attorney to re-create his struggle with Williams. Later, a family attorney cross-examined the police officer for a few minutes while sitting on the floor of the courtroom, mimicking Williams' position at the time of the second shock.

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, which originally was a defendant in the case but was dropped before trial, says the device has saved thousands of lives.

A 2012 study found that the electric barbs can set off irregular heart rhythms, leading to cardiac arrest.

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