Tuesday, September 3, 2013

New trial on wrongful death case against the police

Once the jury renders the verdict, the case is over. You can appeal, but most appeals fail. The easiest way to win a post-trial appeal is by challenging the jury instructions. If the trial judge got it wrong, then trial was infected and you get a second chance at retrial. That's what happened in this wrongful death case against the police.

The case is Ranasen v. Doe, decided on July 19. This case was a he-said-she-said. The police officer, Daniel Brown, shot and killed John Rasenen in his home after executing a search warrant. After kicking in the door to a small bedroom, Brown saw Rasenen in bed with his girlfriend. The police thought that Rasenen was armed, but he was not. Brown testified that he thought that Rasenen was trying to grab Brown's gun. He shot Rasenen out of fear for his life. Rasenen's girlfriend testified differently. This is how the Court of Appeals (Calabresi, Pooler and Raggi) summarizes her account:

Angela Chinnici, for her part, testified that she was asleep next to Rasanen in his bed when she was awakened by knocking on the front door upstairs. She then heard a loud bang, followed by footsteps and cries of, “Police, get down!” Chinnici woke Rasnanen and asked what was going on. Rasanen cursed, leapt out of bed, and closed the bedroom door. He then paced from side to side in the space between the door and the foot of the bed. As Chinnici heard the police coming down the stairs yelling “police” and “get down,” she saw Rasanen drop something behind the television stand. Rasanen then resumed pacing, some two to three feet from the bedroom door. The room, Chinnici said, was dark and small.

Chinnici then saw the door open and Trooper Brown enter. Brown commanded Rasanen and Chinnici to get down. Chinnici complied; Rasanen apparently did not. Chinnici heard a loud pop, and saw a cloud of smoke. She did not see Rasanen lunge at Brown or struggle with Brown for the trooper’s gun.

The jury found in Brown's favor. Rasanen's family appeals. Over Judge Raggi's dissent, the Court of Appeals orders a new trial. What's unique about this case is that, although the Second Circuit remands because of faulty jury instructions, Rasenen's lawyer at trial did not object to the bad instructions. But even under a "plain error" standard of review (which is usually impossible to overcome), the jury charge contravened an established rule of law and was therefore fundamentally incorrect.

As Judge Calabresi sees it, Supreme Court and Second Circuit precedent requires a particular jury charge in deadly force cases under Section 1983. The Supreme Court has said that “[w]here the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force.” Absent such a perceived threat, the use of deadly force is constitutionally unreasonable.  The Second Circuit has said that “[i]t is not objectively reasonable for an officer to use deadly force to apprehend a suspect unless the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” The jury did not hear that legal standard in this case. It will at the retrial. 

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