A federal appeals court has vacated part of a finding that cleared five West Virginia police officers on qualified immunity grounds in an excessive force lawsuit, which was filed by the estate of a homeless black man shot 22 times.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, ruled this week that shielding five Martinsburg police officers for their actions during the summary judgment stage of the lawsuit “would signal absolute immunity for fear-based use of deadly force, which we cannot accept.” The panel sent the case back to U.S. District Court for further proceedings.
Police had stopped Wayne Arnold Jones as he was walking on a Martinsburg street in March 2013. Jones was shot 22 times after police said the 50-year-old Stephens City, Virginia, resident shrugged off two jolts from a stun gun, fought with officers and stabbed one of them. The officers were white.
A Berkeley County grand jury declined to indict the officers in the fatal shooting. The U.S. Justice Department later said there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal civil rights charges against police. Civil rights leaders had pressed for the investigation.
U.S. District Judge Gina Groh dismissed a $200 million lawsuit filed by Jones’ family against the officers and the city. But the appeals panel said in reversing the granting of summary judgment to the officers on qualified immunity grounds that “a reasonable jury could find that Jones was both secured and incapacitated in the final moments before his death.”
“By shooting an incapacitated, injured person who was not moving, and who was laying on his knife, the police officers crossed a ‘bright line’ and can be held liable,” the panel wrote.
The panel noted that Jones' death occurred about a year before the shooting by a white police officer of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.
“Seven years later, we are asked to decide whether it was clearly established that five officers could not shoot a man 22 times as he lay motionless on the ground,” the appeals court said. “Although we recognize that our police officers are often asked to make split-second decisions, we expect them to do so with respect for the dignity and worth of black lives.”
The court also referenced the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after white police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd's neck for several minutes. That death prompted protests by millions of people around the world.
“Although we recognize that our police officers are often asked to make split-second decisions, we expect them to do so with respect for the dignity and worth of black lives,” the panel said. "This has to stop.”