Cop Cleared in Shooting of Gasoline-Soaked Man

     (CN) – A man who doused himself with gasoline was not clearly “emotionally disturbed,” a federal judge ruled, clearing the New Jersey police who fatally shot him.
     The police department in Manchester, N.J., dispatched Officers Michael Lynch, Shawn Cavalcante and Brian Collins on May 30, 2010, after receiving a 911 call from the home of Edward and Darlene Nordstrom.
     According to the officers’ undisputed facts, the Nordstroms’ son, Richard – whom Collins had arrested for domestic violence and had seized weapons from in the past – was reportedly assaulting the couple’s 22-year-old grandson Andrew.
     Once Lynch spotted Richard through a window in a workshop adjoining the home’s detached garage, the officer drew his weapon and turned on his flashlight.
     Cavalcante and Collins insisted that Richard leave the workshop, but Richard refused and began pouring gasoline on his legs and the ground around his feet while holding a utility lighter.
     After the officers ordered Richard to drop the can and lighter, Cavalcante and Collins tried to enter the workshop from an outside door to keep Richard from lighting himself on fire.
     Seconds after Cavalcante tried to force the door open by hitting it with a shovel, Richard squatted then stood up and pointed at the door with what appeared to be a sawed-off shotgun.
     Lynch then shot Richard once in his torso, and then in the back of his left shoulder.
     Sgt. Mark McClellan arrived soon after Richard fell into the doorway. As he kicked the shotgun out of the way, he realized it was a “light plastic item,” not a real weapon.
     Though Richard was motionless, McClellan cuffed him before letting paramedics enter.
     Richard was pronounced dead at 2:24 p.m. that day.
     The Ocean County prosecutor, New Jersey attorney general and the Manchester police later investigated, in turn, and each found that Lynch’s use of deadly force was legally justified.
     Teressa Lopez, administratrix ad prosequendum of Richard and his father’s estate, sued the police and township in 2012, but U.S. District Judge Joel Pisano granted the defendants summary judgment last week.
     “The court fails to see how plaintiff may maintain excessive force claims against defendants Collins and Cavalcante because these officers did not use any force at all against the decedent,” the Aug. 28 decision states.
     Finding that the officers did not “seize” Richard under the Fourth Amendment, Pisano said the evidence does not reveal Lynch’s actions to be objectively unreasonable.
     “Officer Lynch was justified in using deadly force since he reasonably believed that the decedent was drawing a gun,” Pisano wrote. “The fact that the decedent was holding what appeared to be a shotgun is not disputed, and Officer Lynch’s mistaken belief that the shotgun was real must be forgiven, as the circumstances indicate that this mistake was reasonable. Defendant Lynch was forced into making a split-second decision and reasonably believed that the safety of his fellow officers was at risk.”
     The court also rejected claims that Lynch’s use of deadly force resulted from a lack of training on how to deal with an emotionally disturbed person.
     “This argument is speculative as it assumes that the decedent was in fact an emotionally disturbed person, and in any event, it is not enough to establish that the injury could have been avoided by more or different training,” Pisano wrote.

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