HOUSTON (CN) – The federal trial of a white Texas police officer accused of using excessive force for shooting a black man on his front porch ended with a settlement Tuesday morning.
Bellaire, Texas agreed to pay $110,000 to Robert Tolan, his parents and his cousin Anthony Cooper.
The bullet that ripped through Tolan’s lung and lodged in his liver on Dec. 30, 2008, ended his professional baseball career and his dreams of playing in the big leagues like his father Bobby Tolan did.
Bellaire police Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton shot Tolan in front of the home Tolan shared with his parents in the affluent Houston suburb.
With Tolan and his counsel ringed by reporters and members of Tolan’s church outside the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse in downtown Houston, his attorney Daryl Washington called U.S. law broken when it comes to police shootings of civilians.
“In 2008 the issues of excessive force had just started,” Washington said. “We’re now in 2015 and these issues are still going on and until we realize that government statutes are designed to protect these police officers we’re going to continue to have this problem.”
U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon found Cotton had qualified immunity from Tolan’s excessive force claim in a March 2012 ruling. The Fifth Circuit affirmed but the U.S. Supreme Court revived Tolan’s case in May, finding the appellate court should have given more weight to Tolan’s version of events.
The Fifth Circuit sent the case back down to Harmon who set it for trial. But she made some telling statements on Friday in a pretrial hearing on Cotton’s motion for summary judgment, which she denied.
“I am very tempted to grant it, but I’m not going to right now. I think the Supreme Court sent it back to the circuit so that they could reanalyze my case. The Fifth Circuit didn’t want to do that, so they punted it to me. And I don’t think . . . they would ever be satisfied if we didn’t take this case to trial,” Harmon said.
The quote comes from an order Harmon issued Monday denying Tolan’s motion asking her to remove herself from the case.
Harmon also stated at Friday’s hearing “I thought I was right the first time,” referring to her decision to grant Cotton immunity, according to court records.
Discouraged by Harmon’s comments and her refusal to recuse herself, Tolan decided to settle Tuesday on the trial’s opening day.
Though the case ended with a settlement, Washington called it a win for Tolan because the Supreme Court ruled in his favor.
“As Mrs. Tolan has said and as Robbie has said on many occasions this is not about black versus white this is about right versus wrong,” Washington said outside the courthouse.
“Police officers are there to protect and serve and they have a duty to de-escalate situations and they escalated this situation. This situation was easily resolvable, but they chose to shoot Robbie Tolan because they know they are dealing with a law that is designed to protect them.
“But we’re going to continue to fight. The Tolans are going to continue to fight, and we’re just very satisfied that this family got a victory from the Supreme Court. And it’s not over. Their story is going to continue to be told throughout the United States.”
The confrontation that led to the shooting started with another officer’s mistake.
With Bellaire police on edge from a rash of car thefts, officer John Edwards saw Tolan make a sharp turn in his SUV and trailed him to his house.
As he watched Tolan and Cooper remove items from the SUV, Edwards typed the Nissan’s license plate into his police car’s computer.
Edwards typed one digit in wrong and the vehicle came back stolen.
After radioing for backup, Edwards shined his flashlight on Tolan and Cooper and approached the pair with his gun drawn, ordering them down to the ground.
Though Tolan and Cooper initially ignored Edwards’ demands, they say they went to the ground when Tolan’s parents Bobby and Marian came outside, saw what was going on, and told them to shut up and lie down.
Cotton pulled up, drew his gun as he got out of his patrol car and approached Edwards, who told him the two car-burglary suspects were on the ground.
Cotton then grabbed Marian by the arm and moved her toward the garage. Her son, Robert, who was lying on the porch facing the home, yelled, “Get your fucking hands off my mom,” and began to turn and get up.
The sergeant then pushed Marian against the garage door and fired three shots at Robert, one of which punctured his lung and lodged in his liver.
The Tolans and Cooper sued the city of Bellaire, Edwards and Cotton in May 2009 for excessive force and violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. A jury acquitted Cotton of criminal charges for the shooting in May 2010.
Harmon dismissed the claims against the city on Friday.
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