Crime & Courts

Jury deliberations continue in Charlotte Taser death case

The jury in a federal lawsuit stemming from the fatal use of a Taser by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police in 2011 will return to work Thursday morning after earlier telling the judge it was deadlocked.

U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn sent the panel home about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday when its first day of deliberations failed to reach a verdict.

The lawsuit accuses police Officer Michael Forbes of causing the death of La-Reko Williams, 21, the night of July 20, 2011, by shocking him twice with a Taser.

Williams’ parents, Temako McCarthy and Anthony Williams, are asking for $3.5 million in damages.

Deliberations began just after 9 a.m. From the start, the five women and three men on the jury appear to have struggled with determining whether Forbes used excessive force.

A little more than two hours into their discussions, the jurors sent Cogburn a note. In it, they asked the judge for more information about “objectionable reasonableness,” a legal cornerstone in court cases involving police response.

Basically, it means the jury must 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 police handling of a west Charlotte man in the mid-1980s.)

After talking with attorneys on both sides, Cogburn 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 Cogburn another question. They next told the judge they could not reach a verdict, one of the family’s attorneys told the Observer.

Cogburn sent the eight back to the jury room to resume their work. After about 90 minutes, he released them for the night.

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.

Cogburn has already given 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, who sued Forbes, say their son was nearly helpless from the first Taser shock when Forbes fired the second.

Williams’ heart stopped beating soon afterward.

Forbes testified in court this week that he fired the second shock because he felt threatened by Williams, who the officer claimed was trying to get to his feet.

Attorneys for the parents say the officer needlessly shocked a sitting man nearly incapacitated from the first tasing. The officer was not charged with a crime and remains on the force.

Forbes wore his uniform to court each day, and four of his police colleagues waited with him Wednesday morning for a verdict.

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 police tasing of 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 Williams’ parents originally included but later dropped from their lawsuit, says the device has saved thousands of lives.

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

After Williams’ death, Chief Rodney Monroe pulled the Charlotte-Mecklenburg 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.

The lawsuit marks Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s third high-profile, legal case this year involving the shooting of a black suspect by a white police officer.

Last month, the city paid Jeffery Green $115,000 after the Charlotte teenager was shot 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.

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

Forbes’ case is being heard by an all-white jury. The verdict must be unanimous. Staff writer Erin Bacon contributed.