A federal jury on Wednesday found a Lafayette police corporal is immune from civil liability in the 2011 shooting death of Quamaine “Dee” Mason.
After almost 10 hours of deliberation over two days, the eight-person jury found that the officer, now a sergeant, violated Mason’s constitutional rights and used excessive force in the shooting, but they also found "qualified immunity" applied to his case.
Mason’s parents, Billy and Brenda Mason, are the plaintiffs in the wrongful death lawsuit that first entered the courts in 2012, when a grand jury declined to indict the officer.
"This is, to me, better than a hung jury, because it basically says my son had his rights violated and that this officer was unreasonable in his actions and excessive. And to me, that’s vindication," Billy Mason said of the verdict.
Qualified immunity is often used as a defense in cases when police shoot civilians. It shields the officer from the potential penalties associated with the wrongful-death lawsuit, filed by Mason’s parents in the U.S. Western District Court of Louisiana.
The officer killed Mason outside of a Lafayette apartment in on Dec. 9, 2011. Minutes before the shooting, Mason found his girlfriend at her apartment with two men, one of whom called the police when Mason became irate and brandished his gun. Dispatch communicated the call that night as a reported armed robbery.
Joy Rabalais, the assistant city attorney who represents Faul, argued that officers responded to the “hot” call knowing only Mason’s description and that he had a gun.
“Police training is not about deciphering someone’s intentions,” she said during closing arguments, adding that officers are trained to protect themselves and others from the “perceived” potential use of a weapon.
Jeff Speer, the attorney who represents Mason’s parents, argued that Mason was given “seconds to hit the ground or die,” encouraging the jury during closing arguments to reject the “militarization” of police work.
“That’s not what is appropriate for police officers on the streets of America,” Speer said.
There’s been no question about whether Mason carried a handgun in his waistband when he and his girlfriend opened her apartment door to find three officers with their weapons drawn, nor about whether he raised both of his hands and remained silent as soon as the encounter began.
But the officer claims he saw Mason move a hand toward the weapon, so he ordered his canine to attack and, within, seconds, fired the five shots into Mason’s body.
The officer then fired another two shots into Mason’s back once he lay prone and wounded on the ground with the dog still latched, claiming he again saw Mason move.
It’s those two shots that in 2015 led an appeals court to remand the case back to Lafayette for a jury trial. Now-retired judge Richard Haik had dismissed the case in 2013 on the grounds of qualified immunity, but a panel of judges with the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that a reasonable jury could find those final two shots were fired without probable cause.
The only non-police witness to the shooting, Mason’s then-girlfriend, testified during the trial that she only saw Mason’s hands move when the dog attacked.
She told investigators the night of the shooting that if the aspiring police officer reached for the gun, he would have done it only to put it down, and she said if Mason moved at all once he lay wounded, it only would have been because the dog continued to attack his body.
Women and men equally divided the jury. Two black men served among the six other white jurors.
The trial began on March 5, and the jury began deliberations on Monday morning, during which the jury twice indicated to the judge that it could not reach a unanimous verdict.
Jurors were asked to decide whether the officer deprived Mason of his constitutional rights through objectively unreasonable force. Because the jury found that yes, the officer had, they were asked to consider whether qualified immunity applied to his case. They found that it does.
If they had found Mason was not immune, the jury would have divided the fault in percentages between the officer and Mason and decided whether Mason’s parents should be afforded compensatory damages for things like funeral costs and loss of their son’s love and affection.
The jury also would have considered whether Mason suffered "conscious" pain and suffering and whether his family should be afforded damages for that. If the jury found the officer acted with malice or reckless indifference in the shooting, they also would have considered punitive damages against the officer.
Speer, the Masons’ attorney, had objected to the verdict form, which allowed the jury to consider qualified immunity even if it found that the officer violated Mason’s constitutional rights.
During the Masons’ first appeal, the court noted that qualified immunity "shields government officials acting within their discretionary authority from liability when their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional law of which a reasonable person would have known.”
Billy Mason said he supports the "narrow" application of qualified immunity in law enforcement, but he disagrees with its use in his son’s case.
"It’s not about the money. It’s the principle of this whole thing," Billy Mason said. "If we don’t show that there will be some type of relief afforded if you do make these type of violations, then where’s the deterrent at?"
Note: This article was corrected to include that there were two black jurors.