Judge Won’t Dismiss Wrongful Death Claim Against Sheriff’s Office

HOUSTON (CN) — Parents of a black man who was shot to death by a Texas sheriff’s deputy have evidence that rebuts the story he attacked the lawman with a knife, a federal judge found this week, refusing to dismiss their wrongful death lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Gray Miller on Monday rejected Harris County’s claims that its sheriff’s deputy shot JeRay Chatham dead when Chatham charged at the deputy with a butcher knife in November 2015.

Chatham’s troubles with the law came after he and Jennifer Carter started dating while they were students at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Chatham played defensive end for OSU’s football team, earning Big-12 All-Conference honors as a senior in 2008, The Oklahoman newspaper reported.

After college, Chatham returned home to Houston, Harris County’s seat, and got a job with UPS after several unsuccessful Arena Football League tryouts.

Chatham’s and Carter’s relationship soured in early 2015. She got a restraining order against him the day he was arrested on felony assault charges in February 2015. She told police he had choked her.

But Chatham apparently could not get over Carter. Prosecutors charged him with felony burglary in April 2015 and misdemeanor trespassing in August 2015 for allegedly entering Carter’s home without her permission, court records show.

Chatham had just cut a probation deal with prosecutors to resolve his criminal charges when Carter called 911 and said he was following her in his car on Nov. 15, 2015.

Tailed by Chatham, Carter drove to a convenience store in northwest Houston and deputies met her there. When the deputies pulled up, Chatham drove away. He returned within minutes and got out of his car holding a butcher knife, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office told local media shortly after the shooting.

The sheriff’s office said Chatham ran away from deputies into an apartment complex and went into a patio where he stripped to his underwear. Chatham ran off again but stopped. When a deputy rounded a corner, Chatham lunged at the officer with the knife, sheriff’s officials said.

The deputy shot Chatham twice and killed him. A grand jury declined to indict the deputy, who has not been named in media reports or court filings.

The sheriff’s department’s account conflicts with an autopsy report Chatham’s parents placed into evidence for the wrongful death lawsuit they filed against Harris County in July 2017, which was removed from state to federal court.

According to the autopsy report, one bullet entered Chatham’s right shoulder and lodged in his heart. “The path of the wound is right to left and slightly back to front,” the report states.

The other bullet hit the side of Chatham’s right thigh and ripped out the other side. “The path of the wound is right to left and back to front,” the report states. It concluded the shots were not fired at close range.

“The forensic evidence from the independent autopsy suggests that Mr. Chatham was shot in his side and toward his back, which is not indicative of the story that the county is trying to portray,” Chatham’s parents’ attorney Brennen Dunn said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

Dunn said he does not know why Chatham stripped.

“When people are under stress they do abnormal things, and I think at that point he was under a lot of mental strain,” Dunn said.

U.S. District Judge Gray Miller refused to dismiss the lawsuit Monday, taking Chatham’s parents’ “well-pled facts” as true, as required in this early stage of the case.

Harris County argued that Chatham’s parents, Ray Chatham and Belinda Green, lack standing because neither has been named executor of his estate, and they waited too long — more than 6 months — to serve it with their lawsuit.

But Miller said Fifth Circuit precedent allows individual wrongful death claims and claims for an estate, and since Harris County was aware it could be found at fault for the shooting it had “subjective notice” of the parents’ claims.

“And, because it had subjective notice, Harris County had actual notice,” the 9-page order states.

Miller also rejected the county’s argument that it is immune under the Texas Tort Claims Act, which shields local governments from liability if their employee was responding to an emergency call or reacting to an emergency situation, and their actions were not blatantly reckless.

Miller credited Chatham’s parents’ contentions that the emergency had ended when the deputies chased Chatham, and “the context no longer supported the use of deadly force.”

Dunn said Judge Miller wants the parties to try to settle in mediation.

“I am hoping that based off our showing the county will take this a little bit more seriously, and we can come to a successful resolution,” he said.

Harris County’s staff attorney assigned to the case, Laura Beckman Hedge, did not respond to a request for comment.

Chatham’s parents seek more than $1 million damages for claims of wrongful death, municipal liability, due process violations, negligence and gross negligence that survived Harris County’s request for dismissal.

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