Court Digest

Omaha to pay more than $500K in stun gun death

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The city of Omaha has agreed to pay more than a half-million dollars to the mother of a mentally ill man who died in a confrontation with police in 2017.

The city will pay $550,000 to Renita Chalepah, the mother of 29-year-old Zachary Bearheels, to settle her wrongful death lawsuit, the Omaha World-Herald reported  Friday.

Four city police officers were fired in the aftermath of Bearheels death on June 5, 2017, when the officers were called to an Omaha convenience store that Bearheels had refused to leave. Bearheels’ family has said he suffered from mental illness and had been on his way to Oklahoma when he was kicked off a bus in Omaha for erratic behavior.

Police cruiser video showed Bearheels being repeatedly shocked with a stun gun and punched in the face by officers, with some of the blows coming after he was handcuffed and sitting limply on the ground.

Prosecutors later charged Scotty Payne, the officer who had used the stun gun on Bearheels, with assault and weapons use in the case, but a jury acquitted Payne in 2018. Earlier this year, an arbitration panel reinstated three of the fired officers in the case, but upheld Payne’s firing.

Court ponders charges for deputies in stun gun death

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia’s Supreme Court is deciding whether three sheriff’s deputies should be immune from prosecution in the 2017 death of a Black man who authorities repeatedly shot with a stun gun.

A judge last year ruled that Sgt. Henry Lee Copeland and deputies Michael Howell and Rhett Scott were immune from prosecution after a district attorney charged the former Washington County sheriff’s deputies with murder in the death of Eurie Martin, 58.

The judge found the deputies’ use of force against Martin was justified under Georgia’s stand your ground law, which allows for people to defend themselves with violence if they have a reasonable belief they are in bodily danger.

Opponents of the law have been alarmed that the lower court ruling expands the law to cover police officers. In the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, many people have called for limiting officers’ immunity.

Martin, who suffered from schizophrenia, had been the subject of a 911 call from a homeowner when he asked for water near the town of Deepstep while on a 30-mile (48-kilometer) walk to see relatives on a sweltering July day. The three former officers are white.

Prosecutors asked justices during the Thursday hearing to overturn the ruling and let proceed indictments brought by a grand jury for felony murder, involuntary manslaughter, false imprisonment, aggravated assault, simple assault and reckless conduct, news outlets reported.

Assistant District Attorney Kelly Weathers argued that the officers were never in a position of self-defense in a conflict they started.

“Essentially, were they men under attack?” Weathers asked. “And the state submits that no interpretation of the footage of the last 11 minutes of Martin’s life support that finding.”

Justice Charles Bethel quickly cut off Weathers and began a line of questioning that suggested that at least for Scott, the court may uphold immunity.

Scott was the last of the three officers to encounter Martin, and when he did, Martin had been shot with a stun gun once and was clearly upset. Given Scott’s late arrival, justices asked whether he might have had a reasonable suspicion Martin had been violent with the other officers and that self-defense was justified.

“Although he’s agitated, he’s not overtly aggressive,” Weathers said of Martin at the point at which Deputy Scott arrived on the scene, facts supported by the narrative in the lower court’s ruling. “There is no action of Mr. Martin toward Deputy Scott that threaten Deputy Scott’s personal safety,”

Martin suffered respiratory arrest and died of an apparent heart attack, authorities have said.