BALTIMORE (AP) — The defense rested Monday in a federal stun-gun death trial after an expert witness testified the victim was actively resisting arrest while lying face-down and unresponsive but still breathing after being shocked the first time.
The man’s parents, Jeffrey Gray and Tanya Thomas, both of Frederick, are seeking $145 million in damages for what they claim was former Frederick County Sheriff’s Cpl. Rudy Torres’ use of excessive force against their 20-year-old son in November 2007. U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. scheduled closing arguments for Tuesday.
Jarrel Gray’s death and eight others in Maryland linked to stun guns led the state attorney general’s office in 2009 to recommend more stringent training on the use of electric stun guns.
On Monday, police policy expert Robert F. Thomas Jr. told the jury that Torres correctly delivered a second jolt because he didn’t know if Gray was still conscious. Because Gray’s hands weren’t visible, Torres didn’t know if he was concealing a weapon, Thomas said.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Gregory Lattimer, seemingly incredulous, then asked Thomas: “Are you saying it’s OK to taser an unconscious individual?”
After failing twice to give a yes-or-no response, Thomas said he couldn’t answer the question simply.
“It depends,” he said, upon Torres’ perception of the situation.
In November 2007, Torres, now retired from the sheriff’s office and working as a Fairfax County, Va., dispatcher, responded alone to a reported outdoor fight in a subdivision near Frederick.
The other alleged combatant and a third young man complied with Torres’ orders to lie down and show their hands. Gray, who was drunk, remained standing with his hands tucked in the front of his pants, according to Torres. Torres then fired his stun gun and Gray fell face-first with his hands beneath him, Torres testified. No weapon was found.
Gray’s cousin Jerame Duvall, with whom Gray had been tussling, claimed in a deposition that Gray was trying to get down when Gray fired. He also claimed that Gray’s hands were at his sides when he fell.
Another deputy arrived at around the time Torres delivered the second shock less than 30 seconds later, according to testimony.
Thomas, a Charlotte, N.C., attorney specializing in police policies and procedures, said it would have been too risky for Torres to approach Gray with handcuffs.
“The entire course of action, in my judgment, was wise and prudent” and consistent with law-enforcement practices across the United States, he said.
The plaintiffs’ expert witness, former Boca Raton, Fla., police chief Andrew Scott, testified last week that Torres wasn’t justified in shocking Gray. He said Gray was exhibiting passive resistance and wasn’t an immediate threat.
The state medical examiner’s office concluded Gray’s was a “sudden death associated with restraint and alcohol intoxication.”
The only method of restraint mentioned in the autopsy report was the stun gun but the medical examiner didn’t specifically identify it as a contributing factor. The cause of death — such as homicide, suicide, or accidental — was undetermined.
Last year, the U.S. Justice Department advised police officers using stun guns to avoid shooting suspects multiple times or for prolonged periods to reduce the risk of potential injury or death. The report stemmed from a study of nearly 300 cases in which people died from 1999 to 2005 after police shot them with stun guns. It found that most of the deaths were caused by underlying health problems and other issues. Of those cases, the experts examined 22 in which the use of stun guns was listed as an official cause of death.
Gray’s parents also sued the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and Frederick County, but those defendants were separated from the case against Torres. Any claims against them will be decided after this trial.
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