U.S. jurors award N4.6b to black man shot by police chief
• Legal practitioners insist on payment of judgment sums
• Lawyers urge Nigerian judges to emulate decision
A 22-YEAR-OLD black man who was unarmed when he was shot by a sheriff’s deputy as a result of which he was paralysed has been awarded $23.1 million (about N4.550 billion) by a federal jury in the United States (U.S.).
However, the judgment, which was pronounced by a six-woman, two-man jury on Wednesday, will have to be approved by Florida lawmakers in line with the extant law requiring approval for awards exceeding $200,000.
Meanwhile, Nigerian lawyers are urging judges to emulate the U.S. jurors just as they insisted that judgment sums be paid as awarded by the courts.
The Florida jury ruled after three-and-a half hours of deliberation that Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Sgt. Adams Lin violated Dontrell Stephens’ civil rights when he shot him in September 2013.
Lin, who had stopped Stephens for riding his bicycle into traffic, testified that he shot Stephens four times because he reached for his waistband with his left hand and then flashed a dark object that he thought was a small handgun.
Stephens testified that he was raising his hands when Lin opened fire for no reason. Video from the dashboard camera in Lin’s patrol car showed Stephens’ left hand was empty and a cellphone was in his right hand.
An appeal is expected and Lin’s attorneys could ask Magistrate Judge Barry S. Seltzer to reduce the damages.
The jury apparently rejected Lin’s claim that he had made an “objectively reasonable mistake” when he shot Stephens.
The jurors declined comment as they left the courthouse as did Lin and his attorneys. Lin sat stoically as the verdict was read, while Stephens wept as he was wheeled into the courtroom minutes later. He too declined comment.
According to Jack Scarola, Stephens’ lead attorney, the verdict is a victory not only for his client but for law enforcement officers who have been unfairly stigmatised by unjustified violence against young black men by a small minority of their colleagues.
He said the verdict would help restore faith in the justice system among the African-American community.
“This will help good police officers do their duty and be far more effective in their communities,” Scarola said.
Under Florida law, the Legislature has to approve any lawsuit payment against a government agency that exceeds $200,000. In the past, legislators have been reluctant to do that, even in non-controversial cases. For example, it took about three years for the Legislature to approve a $3.5 million settlement for a Jacksonville teenager who was paralysed when a large branch from a city-owned tree broke off and hit him in the head, paralysing him. The city, admitting fault, had asked for him to be paid.
In another case, it took more than four years for the Legislature to approve a $10.7 million settlement for a teenager who was permanently disabled when a speeding sheriff’s deputy plowed into her car.
Scarola said legislators “would not be fulfilling their sworn obligation” if they failed to approve Stephens’ payment. He said they would be overriding a jury that heard all the evidence and found that a “major injustice” had been done, and condemning Stephens to a life of poverty and suffering.
The case was among several nationwide that have sparked debate about the deaths of unarmed black males following encounters with law enforcement officers.
Seltzer had instructed jurors that they could consider only the specific circumstances of Stephens’ shooting and no other.
Lin, an Asian-American, was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by sheriff’s investigators and local prosecutors and was later promoted to sergeant.
Lin, 38 and a 12-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, testified that he stopped Stephens for riding his bicycle into traffic and because he didn’t recognise him from the neighbourhood.
Stephens, who admitted smoking marijuana earlier that morning and once served 90 days in jail for a felony drug conviction, had been riding to a friend’s house after a trip to a convenience store.
In the dashcam video, Lin speeds up his patrol car to catch Stephens as he pedals down a West Palm Beach residential street. Stephens sees Lin and turns into the parking lot of a duplex, hops off his bike and puts it down, his right hand holding his cellphone. Stephens moves behind a car and both men are now outside the camera’s view. Stephens testified Lin already had his gun drawn and shot him after he raised his hands. Lin denied that, saying he only drew and fired after Stephens flashed his cellphone like it was a gun.
A senior lecturer at the University of Lagos, Dr. Fassy Yusuf said: “The quantum of award depends on the evidence before the court as presented by the plaintiff. The guy is paralysed, you must note.
“In Nigeria here, the law does not inhibit any judge from awarding any amount of damages. It depends on the counsel to the plaintiff. So it depends on how the prosecution handles the matter. The important thing is that the wheel of justice is always working non-stop in the developed world, unlike in our own case.”
A Lagos-based rights activist, Yinka Oyeniji said the decision was welcome development. “We have a situation where our law enforcement agents are not cautious enough to protect the rights of citizens. They must be aware that in the midst of their powers, every Nigerian is innocent until proven guilty. Again, we must respect the fundamental human rights of citizens. That touches on the rights of the people presently being prosecuted by the Federal Government. There is a wanton breach of the fundamental rights of the accused persons.”
According to him, Nigeria should imbibe an effective judicial system in order to ensure that such cases are decided speedily. He said: “We should have an effective judicial system wherein judgments are given on time when such matters are filed. But you see our courts declining jurisdiction on frivolous grounds. You see a federal high court saying it cannot entertain matters filed against a State High Court. That is not in the spirit of the enforcement of the fundamental human rights Act, 2009. So the courts have a role to play in entertaining matters timeously.
“Thirdly, what I can also say is that we should see as important the criminal aspect of such acts. What we hear most times is that the culprit has been dragged before a court-martial, subjected to criminal trial and dismissed. But that does not remedy the damage that has been caused by their action. What we should have is that the Police Service Commission, accounting officers including commissioners of police, assistant inspectors general of police and the inspector general of police must now become financially responsible for any error committed by any policeman. Their pensions must be attached to the debt. They must be personally responsible so that when we get such judgments, they will ensure the payment of the judgment sum. That is exactly the case of Baba Suwe who got a judgment of N25million against the NDLEA only for the agency to claim that the entire budget of NDLEA cannot service the judgment sum.”