Jury: Deputy not liable in Md. stun-gun death case

January 25, 2012 - 5:05 PM
Stun Gun Death

Former Frederick County Sheriff's Cpl. Rudy Torres walks out of U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012 during a recess in a civil trial stemming from his role in the November 2007 stun-gun death of 20-year-old Jarrell Gray. Gray's family is seeking $145 million for what they claim was an excessive use of force by Torres. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

BALTIMORE (AP) — A former sheriff's deputy is not liable for the death of a man he shocked with a stun gun as the 20-year-old lay face-down and possibly unconscious, according to a federal jury's ruling Wednesday that said the officer used only enough force to protect himself.

Retired Frederick County Cpl. Rudy Torres, a 13-year veteran of the force, sighed in relief after the jury forewoman read the verdict at the end of a five-day trial. Outside the courthouse in Baltimore, Torres said Jarrel Gray's death was tragic but that justice had been done.

"Tasers are a useful tool. They've saved many more lives than they've taken, if they've taken any at all," he said.

Gray's mother Tanya Thomas, who filed the wrongful death claim along with Gray's father, was unforgiving.

"I have to go to my son's burial plot to visit him, and I want to know how he sleeps with that," she said.

Torres encountered Gray and two other men early on the morning of Nov. 18, 2007, after responding alone to a reported outdoor fight in a neighborhood about 45 miles west of Baltimore. He testified that he shocked Gray once after the man ignored his commands to get down and show his hands. He shocked him again, less than 30 seconds later, after Gray fell face-first and still didn't respond to commands to show his hands.

A medical examiner listed the cause of death as undetermined, associated with restraint and alcohol intoxication. The stun gun was the only means of restraint mentioned in the report.

Defense attorney Daniel Karp suggested during the trial that Gray succumbed to an irregular heartbeat caused by unaccustomed binge drinking, a condition called "holiday heart."

Plaintiffs' attorney Gregory Lattimer called the verdict "heartbreaking." His co-counsel Ted Williams said he was troubled by the finding and raised the possibility of an appeal.

Gray's father Jeffrey Gray declined to comment after the verdict. He and Thomas were seeking $145 million for an alleged excessive use of force.

Police policy experts who testified at the trial disagreed about whether it was reasonable to believe Gray still posed a threat after the first shock.

A Frederick County grand jury ruled in 2008 that Torres' actions were justified and that he followed police protocol.

The 10 federal jurors rejected the excessive force argument. They found that Torres assaulted Gray but decided the deputy was shielded from liability because his actions were in defense of himself or others, and that he only used enough force to protect himself.

Jury forewoman Monica Oguinn told reporters that the assault finding simply reflected the definition jurors were given by the judge.

"It was not an intentional act and it was not a wrongful act by the officer to do what he did," she said.

She said everything unfolded so quickly that Torres had to make split-second decisions for which he couldn't be faulted.

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 the devices.

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 the devices.

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department advised police officers to avoid shocking suspects multiple times or for prolonged periods to reduce the risk of potential injury or death.

The report came after a study of nearly 300 cases in which people died from 1999 to 2005 when 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.

Torres retired from the sheriff's office and now works as a Fairfax County, Va., dispatcher.

Gray's parents also sued the sheriff's office and the Frederick County Commissioners, but the cases against them were postponed pending the outcome of Torres' trial.