A federal jury must deal with a clash of perceptions between two Utah County police officers and the family of a suicidal man they fatally shot during an incident just after Christmas in 1998.
In what is expected to be a nine-day trial, a jury of nine men and three women on Wednesday heard opening statements from an attorney representing the family of David Walker and attorneys representing Orem Police Sgt. Harold Peterson and Pleasant Grove officer John Clayton.
Attorney Lauren Scholnick claimed officers Peterson and Clayton ignored their training on how to deal with suicidal people and did not yell out any warning before firing two rounds each into Walker.
While Peterson has claimed he thought he saw Walker turn pointing a gun, after the shooting the metal object Walker was holding turned out to be a box cutter with a 2-inch blade.
After the shooting, Scholnick said officers herded family members into their house while Walker lay dying on the ground. Family members also claim that officers at the scene did little to provide CPR or comfort and prevented them from running to him. Scholnick said Walker lived for just under two hours and later died at American Fork Hospital before family members were released from questioning and were able to get there.
The family is suing for constitutional violations in connection to the shooting, as well as claims for pain and suffering. Although claims against the cities and Utah County were dismissed, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled there was enough evidence of excessive force by the officers to take the claims against them to trial.
Peterson's attorney, Andrew Morse, said his client was in fear for his life at the time, thinking Walker had a gun. "Self-defense doesn't violate the Constitution of the United States," he said, adding that three law enforcement agencies had investigated the shooting and ruled it justified.
Morse also cautioned the jury members not to think with their hearts. "You are not here to feel sorry for anybody. ... You are not here, frankly, to be fair or to be just," but rather to determine if the shooting was "reasonably necessary."
Peterson was described as an officer with 21 years of experience, a Vietnam veteran who was fired upon while serving as a gunner. Later, when he served as an officer in Long Beach, Miss., Morse said Peterson was shot at three times, and while working as an officer in Port Arthur, Texas, shot at again six more times. This was all before coming to work for Orem police in 1983.
Peterson served as an officer in Orem until 2001, when he retired after suffering a stroke. Peterson taught other officers on the use of force.
Peter Stirba, an attorney for Clayton, told jurors his client fired after Peterson fired, thinking the shots came from Walker. He was reacting to protect himself and Peterson.
The two officers confronted Walker outside his mother's rural Lehi home after the 25-year-old led them on a 36-minute chase through four cities, having nearly caused several accidents by flying through 14 intersections with lights and stop signs. Walker also knocked out power to one neighborhood by hitting a transformer box while running a car through a front lawn.
The incident began Dec. 29, 1998, when Walker called his mother and threatened to commit suicide. Family members said Walker, who was living with his mother while going through a divorce, was depressed because he could not see his children over Christmas. Attorneys for the officers pointed out to the jury on Wednesday that Walker also was suspected of using drugs.
In order to get police help in locating Walker before he hurt himself, family members called police and reported that Walker had stolen his sister's car.
Unfortunately, Scholnick said, police dispatch told officers Walker had threatened the lives of family members.
Accounts of the actual confrontation and shooting conflict with what officers say: that Walker squared off with them, pointing the knife out like it was a gun. Family members maintain Walker held the knife to his wrist and did not point it at police.The trial is expected to continue through next week.
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