Ohio cop aquitted of killing unarmed woman
The Associated Press
LIMA, Ohio — A jury verdict that cleared a police officer in the drug-raid shooting death of an unarmed woman will allow other officers to do their job without hesitation, police union officials said.
Officers throughout the state closely watched the trial, fearing that a guilty judgment would have changed how they react in the line of fire.
Jurors on Monday acquitted Sgt. Joseph Chavalia on charges of negligent homicide and negligent assault in the death of Tarika Wilson seven months ago. Her year-old son also was injured.
Wilson's family filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday against Chavalia and the city. Officers had been looking for Wilson's boyfriend, a suspected drug dealer.
Chavalia had testified that he thought his life was in danger when he fired the shots. He said he saw a shadow coming from behind the partially open bedroom door and heard gunshots that he thought were aimed at him.
It turned out that Wilson didn't have a weapon and that the gunfire Chavalia heard was coming from downstairs, where officers shot two charging pit bulls.
Prosecutor Jeffrey Strausbaugh repeatedly pointed out during the trial that Wilson was shot even though she didn't have a gun.
But jurors were told by visiting Judge Richard Knepper during jury instructions that they could not consider the fact that she was unarmed because that was known only after the shooting.
Citing a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that set guidelines for use of force by police, the jurors were told they could only judge Chavalia's actions based on what he was aware of when he fired into the bedroom where Wilson was with her six children.
It was an important distinction and one that had to be upheld, said Michael Watkins, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Lima.
"If the rules are changed, officers are going to react later," Watkins said. "You're going to have them hesitating, and there are more who are going to be injured or killed."
During the trial, a Columbus SWAT officer and a retired FBI agent both testified that Chavalia had no choice but to shoot because he thought his life was in danger. They also said Chavalia should have fired sooner.
"Thank God it wasn't me there and every officer feels the same way," said James Scanlon, who has been with the Columbus police since 1978.
Watkins, who joined the Lima department a year before Chavalia in 1976, said he understands why Chavalia shot after hearing the gunfire.
"I knew there had to be more to it," he said. "Joe isn't a trigger happy officer."
The verdict further angered Wilson's family and others in Lima's black community.
"The message I got out of all this is that it's OK for police to go and kill in a drug raid," said Arnold Manley, pastor of Pilgrim Rescue Missionary Baptist Church.
In the lawsuit filed in federal court in Toledo, Wilson's mother said police could have waited until the woman and her children were out of the house to try and arrest Wilson's boyfriend, Anthony Terry, the target of the raid.
The shooting on Jan. 4 led to protests about how police treat minorities in the city where one in four residents is black. Chavalia is white and Wilson was black.
Chavalia's lead attorney, Bill Kluge, said he thinks the only reason the officer was charged was because of the reaction within the community.
"Had this case waited two or three months going to the grand jury, it might have been different," he said.
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Chavalia's career with the city's police department is essentially over despite the verdict, Kluge said. He would not say what the officer planned to do next.