The family of a Florida black man fatally shot by a white sheriff’s deputy was left reeling when a jury awarded them pennies — literally — in a wrongful death lawsuit, according to court documents and a New York Times report.
A federal jury found St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara and Deputy Christopher Newman, the officer who fatally shot 30-year-old Gregory Vaughn Hill Jr., through a closed garage door in January 2014, to be just 1% liable in Hill’s death, while the jury found Hill to be 99% responsible for his own death, according to TCPalm.com.
The jury on May 24 awarded $1 to each of Hill’s three children and $1 to his mother, Viola Bryant — and this award was later reduced to just $.04 to reflect the 1% liability finding, according to a report in the Times published Wednesday night.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Hill’s fiancée Monique Davis told the paper. “There are a lot of questions I want to ask.”
The lawsuit, filed in 2016 on behalf of Hill’s mother, sought several hundred thousand dollars in damages against the sheriff’s department and Newman, alleging negligence and a violation of Hill’s constitutional rights, according to court documents.
A lawyer for the family said he was left scratching his head at the pointedly paltry settlement award.
“I think they were trying to insult the case,” attorney James M. Phillips told the Times. “Why go there with the $1? That was the hurtful part.”
The fatal altercation began when Newman and another sheriff’s deputy responded to Hill’s home after receiving a noise complaint, a violation with a maximum penalty of $500, according to court documents. Newman knocked on the garage door, and as it opened to reveal Hill standing facing out, shouted that Hill was holding a gun, the lawsuit states. As the door was closing, Newman fired his handgun four times.
A SWAT team was called, and after clearing firing tear gas into the home and deploying a robot into the garage through a hole cut in the door, Hill was found dead inside from two gunshots to the torso and one to the head, according to TCPalm.com.
Hill was found with an unloaded handgun in his back pocket, and toxicology reports found his blood-alcohol level to be nearly five times the legal limit to drive, TCPalm.com also reported.
The lawsuit, filed in the Southern District of Florida, accused Newman of using excessive force and Sheriff Mascara of negligence in his oversight of his officers. It also accused officers on the scene of using unnecessary, “military-style” tactics in securing the scene, which the suit alleged left the home uninhabitable.
Davis, Hill’s fiancée, speculated that the verdict may have been the result of a “tug-of-war” during jury deliberations, which lasted about 10 hours, including one moment eight hours into deliberations when jurors told the judge they were unable to reach a verdict, she told the Times.
“It seems like jurors gave up,” she said.
The St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Department, however, was happier with the outcome of the trial, noting that Newman had already been cleared of criminal wrongdoing by a grand jury — a common outcome in criminal cases involving use of deadly force against police, according to a 2014 New York Times report.
“"We are pleased to see this difficult and tragic incident come to a conclusion," Mascara wrote on the department's Facebook page. "We appreciate the jury's time and understanding and wish everyone involved in this case the best as they move forward."
[Photo: Family photo courtesy of James M. Phillips]