03/11/2008

Pa. man awarded $28M in son's shooting death

By Joe Mandak
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH - A federal jury on Tuesday awarded $28 million to the father of an unarmed 12-year-old boy fatally shot by state troopers as he ran from a stolen vehicle they had cornered.

The jury found both troopers intentionally shot Michael Ellerbe during the Christmas Eve 2002 chase.

The verdict contradicted the troopers' claim that only one shot Ellerbe — and then only because the officer believed the boy had shot his partner.

Attorneys for the boy's father, Michael Hickenbottom, said the verdict and trial testimony should renew an investigation.

Troopers Samuel Nassan and Juan Curry "lied, covered up, fabricated in order to avoid responsibility, and those in power went along with it," said Geoffrey Fieger, one of Hickenbottom's attorneys. Joel Sansone, another attorney for Hickenbottom, accused U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan of turning "a deaf ear and a blind eye."

In a statement, Buchanan said she would "review the transcript of the civil trial to determine whether reopening the federal criminal investigation is warranted."

Fayette County District Attorney Nancy Vernon said that she is confident the state police and FBI did a proper job and that another criminal investigation isn't needed. Witnesses who surfaced after the earlier investigations — and who cast doubt on the police account during the trial — were not reliable, she said.

"I again express my deepest sympathy to those who loved Michael Ellerbe," Vernon said. "His death was indeed a tragedy. It is significant that he was not at home on Christmas Eve anxiously awaiting the next day. Instead, Michael was on the streets engaging in an adult crime and facing adult consequences."

The troopers' attorney, Andrew Fletcher, promised an appeal.

"This is obviously an enormously disappointing verdict, in our view, not at all supported by the evidence," Fletcher said.

The troopers remain employed in good standing, said Cpl. Linette Quinn, state police spokeswoman.

 

The jury awarded $4 million for the boy's pain and suffering, $12 million for each trooper's use of excessive force, and $4,058 for burial expenses. Damages will eventually be paid by the state police, she said.

Quinn declined to comment on the jury's finding that both troopers shot the boy. State police investigators concluded that Nassan shot him because he believed the boy had shot Curry. Nassan testified that he learned later that Curry had gotten tangled in a fence, causing his gun to fire.

Vernon and Buchanan, relying largely on the internal investigation and a coroner's inquest that echoed those findings, had previously determined the troopers committed no crime.

The trial answered many questions about the shooting, Hickenbottom said — except for why it occurred.

"After five years, my baby has been vindicated," Hickenbottom said outside the courthouse. "That's enough for me."

The jury also rejected police claims that the boy was driving the stolen SUV before the foot chase, defense attorney said, another element on which the two sides couldn't agree. Witnesses said that they saw someone else at the wheel and that Ellerbe was clearly unarmed and sprinting from police when he was shot.

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