Fourth Circuit Blasts Deadly Police Force: ‘This Has to Stop’

Reviving a lawsuit against West Virginia police officers in the case of a black man shot 22 times, a Fourth Circuit panel denounced excessive force in its ruling: “This has to stop.”

A March 2018 vigil held in Martinsburg, W.Va., remembering Wayne Jones, who was shot 22 times by local police in 2013. (Photo via Martinsburg-Berkeley County NAACP/Facebook)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Every 13th of the month since March 2017, locals in Martinsburg, West Virginia, have been holding a silent vigil honoring Wayne Jones, a black man who was shot 22 times by local police. 

“There was horror in the community that this 55-year-old-black man could end up dead on the street,” said William Zakee McGill, a local organizer of the vigil and president of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County NAACP. “It was just shocking. It looked like an assassination.” 

Jones had mental health problems and was homeless at the time of his death. On March 13, 2013, he was stopped by Martinsburg police for walking alongside, rather than on, the sidewalk. Court documents and dashcam video show a struggle ensued between him and the five police officers on the scene. One officer claimed Jones had a knife and the officers stood up, with Wayne incapacitated on the ground, and opened fire.  

“It looked as though these police officers wanted to see what their high-powered arms could do to the human body,” McGill said of the footage. 

Jones’ brothers, Bruce and Bobby Jones, filed suit against Martinsburg and their police department after the shooting. Seven years and two appeals to the Fourth Circuit later, a powerful opinion issued by the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court Tuesday brings the family one step closer to getting their day in court. 

“This has to stop,” U.S. Circuit Judge Henry Floyd wrote, reviving the case by vacating a lower court ruling that granted the officers qualified immunity.

“Jones was killed just over one year before the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of Michael Brown would once again draw national scrutiny to police shootings of black people in the United States,” the Barack Obama appointee wrote before also referencing George Floyd, whose death in the custody of Minneapolis police last month inspired worldwide protests against police brutality.  

The judge added, “Although we recognize that our police officers are often asked to make split second decisions, we expect them to do so with respect for the dignity and worth of black lives.”

Floyd was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanie Thacker, another Obama appointee, and Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Roger Gregory, a Bill Clinton appointee.

Attorney Christopher Brown, who has represented the Jones family during the extensive appeals process, said his clients were happy to hear about the decision. After arguing over summary judgement disputes for so long, Brown is thrilled to see the family finally get to bring their case before a jury. 

“This has been a long, hard struggle,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “To see a light at the end of a tunnel, that justice might be served, it’s a chance at a fair shake.”

Brown was also impressed at the length Judge Floyd went to advocate for Jones and black lives. He said he’s never seen a judge write such a strong comment on a case, but he also said the family never expected their brother to be a national figure in the country’s ongoing struggles with race and police violence.  

“The brothers don’t want Jones to be a headline name but they’re hopeful he can be part of the change we’re seeing,” Brown said.  

Attempts to reach Philip W. Savrin, an attorney with the Georgia-based firm Freeman Mathis & Gary who represented Martinsburg and its police force in the case, were not returned by press time. 

Back in Martinsburg, with the 13th of the month approaching on Saturday, McGill is excited but nervous about what the next vigil will look like.

“The crowd size, the animosity of the police with this decision coming down,” the local NAACP president said. “Every month [the police] haven’t bothered us, sometimes they’ll intimidate us, scowling at us or making disparaging remarks, but [the protesters] are all elderly, mostly white retired professional people, standing on four corners with banners saying ‘Justice for Wayne Jones.’”

Protests over George Floyd’s death have occurred even in this small West Virginia town, with police arresting 11 people last weekend. But McGill and his fellow activists are undeterred, and they’re keeping Jones’ family in their hearts through it all.  

“My heart breaks knowing his elderly mother went to her grave believing that no one cared enough about what happened to her son to open an investigation, to allow the family to have a day in court,” he said of Jones’ mother, Pauline Jones, who died before the first appeal was heard. 

Pauline was also part of the reason Jones was homeless, the family’s attorney said. Jones stayed home to care for her but was forced to sell the house as medical bills added up.

“Maybe now we can move forward, maybe now we can get justice,” McGill added.  

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