U.S. appeals court says jury should hear excessive force allegations against Martinsburg police

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — A federal appeals court says a jury should be allowed to determine if five Martinsburg police officers used excessive force when they killed a black man seven years ago.

The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has sent part of the $200 million case filed by the family of Wayne Jones back to U.S. District Court in Martinsburg in a ruling issued earlier this week.

Wayne Jones was shot 22 times by Martinsburg police in a 2013 incident.

“It opens the door to present this case to a jury on whether or not the five police officers engaged in excessive when they shot Wayne Jones when he lay face down on the ground. He was shot 22 times,” Jones family attorney Paul Taylor told MetroNews Thursday reacting to the 4th Circuit ruling.

MORE Read 4th Circuit ruling here

A Berkeley County grand jury declined to indict the officers on any criminal charges in October 2013 following the March 2013 death. In April 2016, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it found insufficient evidence to pursue civil-rights charges against the officers involved.

Jones was walking down Queen Street when he was stopped because he wasn’t walking on the sidewalk in violation of an ordinance. The first police officer asked for identification, he didn’t have any. The situation quickly escalated from there. The officers said Jones ran after a taser was used on him and he was shot when he later stabbed an officer with the pocket knife. The wound did not require medical treatment.The family filed the civil lawsuit against the city and U.S. District Judge Gina Groh granted summary judgment in favor of Martinsburg in December 2016 after a second review of the case. The case was argued before the 4th Circuit in January 2018. In this week’s ruling, the panel said Jones was incapacitated and injured when he was shot and stopping the case at the summary judgment stage would be premature.

“First, the officers are not protected by qualified immunity because, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Estate, Jones was secured before he was shot,” the panel wrote. “A reasonable jury viewing the videos could find that Jones was secured when he was
pinned to the ground by five officers.”

The 4th Circuit continued.

“By shooting an incapacitated, injured person who was not moving, and who was laying on his knife, the police officers crossed a “bright line” and can be held liable.”

The ruling comes when racial tensions have increased in the United States following the police custody shooting death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. The Fourth Circuit mentioned the Floyd death at the end of its ruling.

“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,” the 4th Circuit said. “Before the ink dried on this opinion, the FBI opened an investigation into yet another death of a black man at the hands of police, this time George Floyd in Minneapolis. This has to stop. To award qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage in this case would signal absolute immunity for fear-based use of deadly force, which we cannot accept.”

Taylor told MetroNews he and the Jones family have always wondered while the case didn’t receive more national attention. It happened a year before the highly publicized police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

“The timing (of this week’s ruling) is curious, maybe to some extent coincidental, but it seems these types of incidents are becoming more and more of a public concern,” Taylor said.

A second case involving Jones’ death is awaiting a written opinion from the state Supreme Court.

“The case involving the prosecuting attorney dealt with the possibility of impaneling a special grand jury to look at the conduct of the officers and consider whether or not indictments should be issued,” Taylor said.

The case was argued before the state Supreme Court in March right before the pandemic halted judicial proceedings.

Taylor said the Jones family is pleased with the 4th Circuit victory but it’s bitter-sweet.

“They’re happy that they are going to get their day in court but that happiness is sort of overshadowed by the sadness of what happened to their brother and son,” Taylor said.

The officers can appeal the 4th Circuit’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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