(CN) — Reversing the decision of a lower court, the 10th Circuit on Friday granted qualified immunity to an Oklahoma police officer who shot and killed a 17-year-old boy who was naked and having an apparent mental health crisis at the time of his death.
The ruling means the officer, Denton Scherman, will not have to face civil rights claims over the 2019 killing of 17-year-old high school student Isaiah Lewis.
Last year, U.S. District Judge David Russell, a Ronald Reagan appointee, granted qualified immunity to another officer involved in the incident but declined to do so for Scherman, who had fired the deadly shots.
"A reasonable jury could conclude that ... deadly force was not justified," even if nonlethal force was "clearly necessary," Russell wrote in his opinion. Among other factors, Russell noted that it was "undisputed" that Lewis did not have a weapon.
Scherman appealed to the Denver-based 10th Circuit, which on Friday found that Russell had improperly denied Scherman qualified immunity. The three-judge panel reversed Russell's order, effectively ending the yearslong case against the cop.
The case stemmed from a bizarre incident in Edmond, a suburb of Oklahoma City, in April 2019.
Responding to a false report of domestic violence at the home of Lewis' girlfriend, local police found Lewis naked and running through the woods. They pursued Lewis for roughly an hour as he continued running naked through the neighborhood and "generally behaving strangely," according to court filings.
At one point, two officers who were not involved in the initial domestic violence call — including Scherman, an officer in training — spotted Lewis hiding in a backyard. They tried to arrest him.
Instead of stopping, Lewis broke into a nearby home. The officers pursued him. Inside, Lewis allegedly attacked the other officer, Sergeant Milo Box. Box attempted to use his Taser on Lewis, but it had "no effect," according to court records.
Lewis then allegedly turned to Scherman, who argued in federal court in Oklahoma that he reasonably viewed Lewis as a threat. Scherman fired five shots at Lewis, hitting him four times. Lewis died from his injuries.
The local district attorney's office declined to press charges against the officers, saying in a statement that Scherman was lawfully defending himself and Box when he fired his weapon. Lewis' family filed a civil rights lawsuit against both officers and the city of Edmond, accusing them of violating Lewis' Fourth Amendment rights by allegedly using excessive force against him "while he was in emotional distress."
Andrew Stroth, an attorney representing the Lewis family, told a local ABC affiliate last year that the case was a "very clear" example of police misuse of force.
"There was an unarmed, 17-year-old teenage young man who was suffering from a mental health crisis," Stroth said.
The 10th Circuit disagreed. In its ruling on Friday, the court zeroed in on the moments before Scherman shot Lewis.
When Scherman entered the house, he saw Lewis "pummeling Box" and could therefore "reasonably presume" that Box was "rendered immobile if not seriously injured," wrote Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Bobby Baldock, a Reagan appointee.
Lewis "had not responded to non-lethal force" in the form of a Taser and "had, by whatever means, rendered Box immobile," Baldock added — all factors that strengthened Scherman's arguments for using deadly force.
The unanimous three-judge panel also found that because Scherman was in a "confined area" when Lewis allegedly advanced on him, it was "difficult if not impossible for Scherman to retreat."
Last but not least, the panel turned to precedent in other cases involving police killings. Given the unusual nature of this incident, lawyers for Lewis' family had not identified a case where an officer was found in violation of the Fourth Amendment under the same circumstances faced by Scherman, the ruling states.
Because of this, Baldock wrote, Scherman did not have "fair notice" that "his repeated use of lethal force was unconstitutional." As such, lawyers for Lewis' family had not "clearly established" that every reasonable officer in Scherman's position would have found his use of force excessive.
Baldock was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Harris Hartz and Carolyn McHugh, appointees of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively.
What happens next in the case is unclear. While Lewis' killing prompted outrage and protests in the Oklahoma City area, the civil rights claims against Scherman have effectively been on hold since he appealed last year.
Attorneys for Lewis' family did not respond by press time to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the city of Edmond declined to comment on the ruling.
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