Sunday, March 20, 2011

MD: Jury awards $11.5M to family of man killed by Prince George's police officer

A Prince George's County jury has awarded $11.5 million in damages to the widow and son of a man fatally shot by a county police officer in 2008.

The month-long civil trial came to a close Wednesday, with the jury ruling that off-duty police officer Steven Jackson acted with malice, not in self-defense, when he shot and killed Manuel de Jesus Espina inside a Langley Park apartment complex where Espina lived and Jackson was working as a part-time security guard.

On Aug. 16, 2008, Jackson, 27, a seven-year veteran on the police department, had observed Espina, 43, drinking in public before he followed him into the apartment complex and shot him once after the two got into a physical struggle, attorneys said.

The jury decided that Jackson did not act in self-defense; that he assaulted, battered and caused the wrongful death of Espina; and that he violated the constitutional rights of Espina's son, who was arrested after the shooting and charged with assault against a police officer, said one of the Espina family's attorneys, Steven Vinick. Those charges were dropped in October 2008.

The jury awarded only compensatory damages, not punitive damages, to Espina's widow, Estelan Concepcion Espina-Jacome, and son, Manuel de Jesus Espina-Jacome, who now live in Silver Spring.

Jackson remains on administrative duty with the county police department, confirmed acting Prince George's County Police Chief Mark A. Magaw, who declined to comment about the case because investigation is ongoing. The county police department has turned over its internal investigation of the case to the county state's attorney, which is now working with federal prosecutors to determine if any criminal charges will be filed against Jackson, officials said.

Attorney Daniel Karp, who is representing Jackson and the county, said he plans to appeal the jury's decision because evidence that Circuit Court Judge Albert W. Northrop allowed in the trial was prejudicial in Espina's favor, he said.

Testimony about Espina's immigration status and that he had a knife in his pocket during the struggle was not allowed in court while Northrop allowed information about a prior use of force allegation filed against Jackson, Karp said. Vinick declined to comment about the immigration status of Espina, a native of Guatemala, at the time of his death.

"The combination of those two things prevented the jury from having an actual assessment of why Mr. Espina would do as he did and resist arrest by police," Karp said.

Karp said Jackson shot Espina once because he felt his gun was going to be taken from him during the confrontation.

On the afternoon Espina died, he was hanging out with several friends and having a beer on the stoop of an apartment, said one of the Espina family's attorneys, Timothy Maloney, during trial. Jackson went to confront the men about drinking openly in public and chased Espina inside, beating Espina with his baton and spraying him with mace, Maloney said. Espina sustained more than 14 injuries from being hit before he was shot, said Maloney, adding that no witnesses saw Espina fight back against Jackson.

"The jury's award recognizes the outrageous police misconduct in this case and its impact upon the Espina family," Maloney said in a statement. "The facts in this case should shock the conscience of the county and raise the question of who is policing the police."

A second county officer, Eric Freeman, who was also named in the lawsuit was dismissed as a plaintiff in the case before the verdict was read, Vinick said. It was alleged that Freeman had falsely arrested and maliciously prosecuted Espina's son to bolster Jackson's version of events leading up to the shooting, according to the lawsuit.

Vinick said it was determined that Freeman had not been responsible for any wrongdoing. County police were not able to determine by The Gazette's deadline whether Freeman was also placed on administrative duty.

Original report here

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