qualified immunity

U.S. Appeals Court Rejects Qualified Immunity in Police Shooting, Writes ‘This Has to Stop'

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When a group of federal judges from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a ruling of qualified immunity for a group of officers this week, they did so in a remarkable fashion.

The judges' opinion, published Wednesday in Richmond, Virginia, ended with a paragraph about the current state of our nation when it comes to police shootings of Black people. They mentioned the killing of George Floyd by name and said simply, "This has to stop."

"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," they wrote.

The ruling came in the case of Wayne Jones, a Black man shot and killed by five police officers in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in 2013. The case has been dismissed in District Court three times, most recently when a judge granted the officers qualified immunity.

"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 appellate judges wrote.

They ultimately reversed the dismissal for summary judgment concluding that “a reasonable jury could find that Jones was both secured and incapacitated in the final moments before his death.”

"Why couldn't [officers] deescalate the situation? I mean, why did they have to go that far?" asked Bruce Jones, Wayne's brother, after watching video of the encounter. "Why did they have to back off of him and shoot him when they had him on the ground? Those are questions I want answers to."

It started shortly before 11: 30 p.m., when an officer spotted Wayne Jones walking along the curb of the road instead of the sidewalk, which is against the law.

As captured on the officer's dashboard camera, he asked Jones for ID and whether he had any weapons. When Jones replied that he had "something," things escalated quickly, according to court records. He had a knife rolled up in his sleeve.

"Put your hands on the car," the officer is heard saying to Jones.

Jones replied, "What did I do to you?

The officer began yelling, "Put your hands on the car."

No one disputes that Wayne Jones, who was schizophrenic, tried to get away when the officer fired his taser. Additional officers and caught up to him and they all tumbled to the ground. According to court records, one officer said he "felt a sharp poke in his side."

"They told me he attacked an officer. I couldn't believe that," Bruce Jones said. "He was a loving, caring person."

The judges wrote that they "identified two pieces of evidence corroborating that Jones was not wielding a knife when he was shot." First, he was laying on his right side and the knife was in his right hand. Second, “at least one police officer” said that Jones “‘did not make any overt acts with the knife towards the officers, once they stepped back.”

Bruce Jones says he promised their mother before she died that he would continue to seek justice and try to clear his brother's name.

Wayne Jones with his mother and sister (Family photo)

"I don't think they want anything more than just the chance for justice, the chance to have a jury hear the case," said Christopher Brown, the family's attorney. "For the most conservative court in the country to comment and say 'this has to stop' is an important statement."

Qualified immunity is a legal ruling which usually shields officers from civil lawsuits unless prior case law with similar facts suggests “any reasonable officer” should have known they were violating a person's rights.

"To award qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage in this case would signal absolute immunity for fear-based use of deadly force, which we cannot accept," the appellate judges wrote.

The opinion noted that Wayne Jones had been "tased four times, hit in the brachial plexus [throat area], kicked and placed in a choke hold, at which point gurgling can be heard in the video."

"He doesn't respond to commands to drop the knife. He's motionless, perhaps unconscious, and they shoot him 22 times and kill him," said Brown. "It's a tragic story and hopefully it'll never happen again."

The judges noted that after being told state police were coming to investigate, officers can be heard on the recording saying that "the incident would be a 'cluster' and they were going to 'have to gather some f**king story.'”

The judges noted that the officers portrayed Jones as a fleeing armed suspect who was not cooperating with law enforcement and had even reportedly hit an officer, displacing the officer’s hat.

The Martinsburg city attorney says West Virginia State Police investigated this case, the  U.S. Department of Justice reviewed it and a grand jury opted not to indict the officers.

In a statement, he said, "It is important to remember the Court of Appeals did not establish the facts or find guilt or liability." He asked that "all citizens reserve judgement That will be up to a jury to decide. He asks that everyone reserve judgment until all the facts are properly considered by a jury."

Bruce Jones was hoping for more.

"At least say, 'We messed up and we shouldn't have shot him. We should have deescalated it,'" he said. "That would make me happy."

He says watching protesters in the streets across the country, he feels like change is possible and hopes his brother's legacy can be part of that.

"Nobody wants riots,” he said. “Nobody wants to be worried that their 5-year-old may not make it to be 10 or their 20-year-old may not make it to be 30. So something has to change."

Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

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