Sunday, April 1, 2012

Jury Finds for Police in Shooting Death of Philly Man

A shooting death of a Philadelphia man garnered a lot of media attention over whether the police had used excessive force and were guilty of intentional infliction of emotional distress.  As noted by PhillyBlurbs,  the civil suit, filed in federal court by the parents of Sean Sullivan, accused three Warminster officers and a Warrington officer with denying 21-year-old Sullivan his civil rights by shooting him as he fled his home early in the morning of March 31, 2006. The suit also named several other officers present at the scene, the Warminster and Warrington police chiefs and townships as defendants.  The basic facts leading up to the incident are as follows:

Warminster police had gone to the Sullivan home on Chestnut Road that morning to arrest Carol Sullivan for providing false information to police.   Sean Sullivan had been arrested two weeks earlier on drug and theft charges, but had used his brother's name to prevent officers from discovering he was also the subject of an arrest warrant for fraud charges. Carol Sullivan had bailed him out as if he was his brother, police said.  As police arrested Carol Sullivan about 6:25 a.m., the officers and Sean Sullivan shouted to one another several times. Police said they hadn't known Sean Sullivan would be in the home and a brief standoff ensued.  About 6:45 a.m., Sullivan climbed out a rear window, fell to the ground and began running. Police said as Sullivan ran he pointed a gun at the officers. Police then fired a total of 56 shots at Sullivan, striking him six times. Sullivan died in a neighbor's back yard.

The lawsuit implicated Warminster and Warrington Townships and a number of individual law enforcement officers involved in the shooting.  The plaintiffs alleged that the defendant officers violated Sullivan's civil rights under 42 USC 1983 and were guilty of using excessive force. The plaintiffs (Sullivan's parents) also alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress to the plaintiff mother and sought punitive, as well as compensatory damages. The defendants maintained that the shooting was justified after Sullivan produced a BB gun designed to replicate the appearance of a Walther PPK, a semi-automatic pistol featured in the "James Bond" films. The officers contended that the decedent threatened them with the gun and they feared for their lives and the lives of others.

Evidence showed that on March 31, 2006, at approximately 6:30 a.m., the defendant Warminster Township police officers arrived at the Chestnut Road, Warminster home of Sullivan and his mother, age 46 at the time. The officers were at the location with an arrest warrant for the plaintiff mother alleging that she provided false information to obtain bail for Sullivan after he was arrested for credit card fraud.

The plaintiff mother contended that Sullivan barricaded himself in his bedroom during her arrest and shouted through the wall to "leave my mom alone, she didn't do anything." The plaintiff mother testified that one of the officers then said "What, you have a gun" but her son never said he had a gun. The plaintiff mother was taken from the house and the house was surrounded by police. The plaintiff claimed that Sullivan was afraid to come out of the bedroom because he thought that he could be shot. Sullivan then attempted to escape out a window of his bedroom and was trying to climb over a fence when six bullets entered his shoulder, chest, leg and back, according to the plaintiffs' version of the incident.

A witness, a neighbor called by the plaintiff, testified that she witnessed the shooting from a window of her home. She testified that Sullivan dropped out the window in a crouch and began running. The witness testified that she moved to another window and saw Sullivan waving his hands over his head and she did not see a weapon in his hand.  Another witness also testified that Sullivan never had a gun.  Counsel for the defense, however, argued that the witnesses views of Sullivan were blocked such that they could not know whether he had a gun.  The defendants also argued that Sullivan told police he had a gun after barricading himself in his bedroom. After jumping out the window, the defense contended that Sullivan brandished a handgun in his right hand and threatened police with it. The officers testified that Sullivan was directed to put up his hands, but continued to aim the gun at the officers. The officers testified that, after Sullivan was shot once, he continued to move towards them and then turned and ran for the fence.

Defense evidence established that an unloaded BB gun, designed to replicate the appearance of a Walther PPK, a semi-automatic hand gun was found in the Sullivans' yard after the shooting. The defendants also called a witness, a friend of Sullivan, who testified that he gave a similar BB gun to Sullivan approximately six weeks before the shooting. The witness did not testify that the gun he gave Sullivan was the same gun found in the plaintiff's yard. He contended that the gun he gave Sullivan contained more scratches. The defense introduced a photograph of Sullivan holding both the BB gun replica and a real semi-automatic handgun.

The plaintiff maintained that Sullivan did not have a gun at the time in question and that he was seeking only to escape. The plaintiff pointed to a bullet wound in Sullivan's back and called neighbors who witnessed the shooting and testified that Sullivan was unarmed. In addition, the plaintiff argued that the testimony of police officers that Sullivan pointed the gun with his right hand was not credible, because Sullivan was left-handed.

However, the defense firmly established that Sullivan owned such handgun replica and that such a gun it was, in fact, found in the back yard following the shooting; although plaintiff's counsel maintained that it was not established that the BB gun found in the plaintiffs' yard was the same BB gun owned by Sullivan.
The gun found was unloaded and was not the proverbial "smoking gun" but was apparently realistic enough in the minds of the jury to warrant the officer's use of deadly force. The plaintiff's motion in limine to keep out Sullivan's lengthy criminal background was not successful and the jury was aware of his less than stellar past.
The defense also sought to convey the trauma suffered by the defendant officers as a result of having fatally wounded the young man. Defense counsel argued that the officers will live with the shooting for the rest of their lives and that they were simply acting to uphold the law and protect the community.

The case was tried over the course of two weeks with deliberations that lasted approximately a day and a-half before the defense verdict was rendered. The plaintiffs have filed an appeal. The defendants have filed a bill of costs in excess of $ 50,000. Share this post :
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