ATLANTA (CN) — A ruling from the 11th Circuit on Tuesday afternoon reinstated excessive force claims against two of three officers accused of firing dozens of rounds at an unconscious man during a 2016 fatal shooting.
The suit was dismissed last year by Chief U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten, who ruled that "their use of force was objectively reasonable."
Jamarion Robinson, a 26-year-old Black man, died after being shot 59 times in August 2016 by a U.S. Marshals task force executing a search warrant for his arrest by local police.
A month prior, Robinson's mother informed police she was worried about the whereabouts and mental state of her son, who had been unmedicated since his release from hospitalization for paranoid schizophrenia at the beginning of the year.
Robinson was a biology student and football player at Clark Atlanta University and Tuskegee University and had no criminal convictions.
When two Atlanta-area police officers encountered Robinson, he pulled out a handgun and pointed it at them before fleeing. He was later found by police again, and shot at them when they attempted to arrest him.
The 16-person task force composed of multiple police agencies fired over 90 rounds into the apartment of Robinson's girlfriend, after they breached the door when no one answered their demands.
Robinson appeared from the second floor landing and, according to evidence from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, fired at the officers three times after being instructed to put down his gun.
Three of the task force members were accused of firing at Robinson after he fell to the ground and was unresponsive in a 2018 excessive force lawsuit by his mother, Monteria Robinson, in federal court.
Judge Batten in the district court ruled against her and granted qualified immunity to U.S. Marshals assistant chief inspector Eric Heinze, Clayton County police officer Kristopher Hutchens and Fulton County detective Danny Doyle.
However, an 11th Circuit panel ruled Tuesday that evidence from a bystander's video suggests that Robinson suffered a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Because officers at the time were not required to wear body cameras, the video has become crucial evidence to the case for capturing a gunfire burst that occurred after a flashbang was detonated.
"Indeed, the evidence indicated that Mr. Robinson was unconscious, so neither officer had any cause to believe that he posed a threat of serious physical harm. Thus, at this point, the use of deadly force was disproportionate to the threat that Officers Doyle and Heinze faced," wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Jill Pryor, a Barack Obama appointee.
The panel concluded that Doyle and Heinze should not have been granted summary judgment by the district court for testifying that they ceased fire after the flashbang exploded because the bystander video created a genuine dispute of material fact.
According to the ruling, the gunfire sound from the video was not only consistent with the burst noise made by Doyle's gun, but testimony suggests that Heinze’s gun could have also produced the sound if he fired it “in the right sequence” with another shooter.
While the officers argued that the video fails to show “where the alleged shots were fired, or by whom,” it did show another officer standing outside of the apartment reacting to the burst-fire noise by turning back to face the door, indicating that only the officers who were inside could have fired the shots.
However, the appeals court disagreed with Robinson's mother's argument that the bullet wounds discovered in his palm meant that he was fired at by the three officers after dropping his weapon.
The judges ruled that the evidence shows that the officers’ gunfire injured Robinson’s hand before he fell and that "none of this evidence conflicts with the officers’ account that Mr. Robinson fell but then 'leaned up' and pointed his gun at them with his right hand."
Pryor was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Britt Grant and R. Lanier Anderson III, appointed by Donald Trump and Jimmy Carter, respectively.
The 11th Circuit order not only returns the case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with Tuesday's ruling, but it could also impact the upcoming trial for Heinze and Hutchens, who were indicted by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis in October on charges of felony murder, aggravated assault, burglary, making false statements and violating their oath of office.
Willis filed the charges based on two days of testimony given before a special grand jury. Her anti-corruption unit overtook the case from former District Attorney Paul Howard, who sued the U.S. Department of Justice for refusing to release documents related to the Robinson shooting and preventing his investigators from interviewing the officers involved.
After Robinson's mother demanded that Hutchens be fired for his charges, the Clayton County Police Department said in a statement earlier this month that he had been reassigned to "non-training duty."
Last year, Monteria Robinson started a foundation in her son's name with the intent to offer resources to families with mental health challenges and advocate for new police approaches to mental health concerns.
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