A federal lawsuit against a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer who fired his Taser at a Charlotte man who later died hangs this week on a single question:
Was the second shot from Officer Michael Forbes’ weapon necessary?
Wednesday, a five-woman, three-man jury began searching for the answer in the testimony surrounding La-Reko Williams’ death in 2011.
His parents claim that Forbes’ use of excessive force led to the death of their 21-year-old son. In their complaint, Temako McCarthy and Anthony Williams say that their son did not pose a threat to the officer and that Forbes violated police training when he twice aimed his Taser at Williams’ chest.
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Forbes’ attorney said the officer fired his Taser as a last resort, and only after Williams had ignored repeated commands and worsened the confrontation.
Williams died July 20, 2011, after a fight with his girlfriend as they left the Lynx station on Woodlawn Road. It marked the second time in three years that CMPD use of a Taser had turned fatal.
McCarthy and Anthony Williams filed their complaint in late 2012. Since then, U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn of Asheville has shrunk the list of defendants – eliminating both Taser International Inc., which produced the weapon Forbes used, and the city of Charlotte.
Cogburn also gave Forbes “qualified immunity” for firing the first Taser probe at Williams. That means the case rests on whether the jury believes the officer, with three years of experience at the time, acted “reasonably” when he fired again.
The parents’ legal team of Karonnie Truzy of Greensboro and Charles Everage and David Ventura, both of Charlotte, say a medical examiner’s autopsy of Williams showed a third possible Taser wound on Williams’ arm – a wound, they claim, that police never investigated.
In his opening arguments to the all-white jury, Truzy said La-Reko Williams was arguing with his girlfriend when Forbes arrived at the Woodlawn light-rail station around 10:40 p.m. Only eight seconds passed, he told the jury, before Forbes threatened Williams with his Taser.
The first shot put Williams on the ground, the attorney said, where an incapacitated Williams continued to ask why he was being targeted.
Forbes fired again. But Truzy claimed he first turned off the device on his uniform that would have recorded the confrontation.
Forbes was never charged. But Truzy said police investigations never probed into why there was no audio or video recording of the incident or whether any of the other officers at the scene might have fired the Taser probe that left the wound in Williams’ arm.
But Forbes’ attorney, Lori Keeton, presented the 70-second confrontation between Williams and the officer in a far different light.
She said Forbes was the first officer to arrive after priority 911 calls reported a man choking and punching a woman at the light-rail station. Forbes tried to get Williams’ side of the story, she said, but the hostile suspect ignored six requests by the officer not to leave the scene.
Forbes warned Williams that he would use the Taser if he didn’t stop. After the first shot, during which Keeton says Williams continued to defy the officer’s orders, Forbes waited 13 seconds before firing again.
Despite the medical examiner’s findings, there was no third shot, she said. Nor did the officer turn off the recording devices on his uniform or in his car. Sometimes, she said, they shut down on their own. She described her client’s actions that night as “appropriate and reasonable.”
Williams died the day after a jury awarded a $10 million judgment to the family of Darryl Turner, a 17-year-old who suffered fatal cardiac arrest after being shocked with a Taser by a CMPD officer in 2009.
The award against Taser International was reduced to $5.5 million and then thrown out in 2013 by a federal appeals court. However, the finding of liability against the company was allowed to stand.
The city paid the family $625,000.
After Williams died, police Chief Rodney Monroe suspended his department’s use of Tasers and reviewed the training his officers receive. Later that year, the city spent almost $2 million to replace its Taser arsenal with safer models, and officers were told to avoid aiming the weapons, when possible, at the chests of their targets.
The lawsuit marks at least three cases this year involving white CMPD officers using their weapons against African-American targets.
Last month, the city settled a longstanding lawsuit involving a police officer’s wounding of a teenager he believed to be a suspect in a stabbing. Instead, the youth was the victim’s 15-year-old son.
Criminal and civil charges remain in state and federal courts against Officer Randall Kerrick, who was indicted on voluntary manslaughter charges after he shot unarmed Jonathan Ferrell nine times last September. Kerrick’s attorney says the shooting was justified.
Wednesday, Truzy told the jury that it has a duty to perform the investigation into Williams’ death that was never done.
Keeton, however, said her client performed his job.
“Officer Forbes was doing what he and other officers do on a daily basis – protecting and serving for the benefit of all of us,” she said.