"Police execution" or a lightning-fast, justifiable shooting?
|Findings from Force Science Research Center Help a Federal Jury Decide
* Special note: Be sure to check out 4 dramatic computer animation clips that were used in this case.
Until the Force Science Research Center entered the case, no one knew precisely how Randall Carr ended up killed by a police bullet that tore into his body near his rectum and blew a hole in his heart.
His angry relatives, with Johnnie Cochran’s legal team behind them, insisted it had to be a deliberate police execution.
The officers involved vehemently denied that, of course. But they couldn’t reconstruct the fatal details of Carr’s final moments or explain the seemingly incriminating pattern of wounds documented at autopsy.
With a $5 million federal civil rights lawsuit and the officers’ reputations at stake, attorneys for the officers contacted Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the nonprofit FSRC at Minnesota State University-Mankato, in hopes that a scientific analysis of the shooting could shed some light on its dark mysteries.
This much was known about the circumstances that began unfolding about 11 o’clock one autumn night in the Maxwell House Apartments in downtown Oklahoma City:
During an investigation of an assault on the landlord during a rent dispute, 2 officers were questioning the accused tenant, Randall Carr, 38. Carr was acting “very excited and aggressive,” and was later found to have evidence of cocaine use in his bloodstream. He declared, “I own this building, I own Oklahoma City and I don’t have to pay rent!” Then he punched one officer in the head, inflicting a cut over his right eye, and kneed the other in the groin, and fled on foot. Multiple units responded.
During a pursuit by foot and car, Carr at one point was whacked at the knee with an expandable baton and sprayed directly in the eyes and nose with OC, but he did not submit. Finally the cop who’d been kneed during the initial call, Ofcr. Jerry Bowen, and a responding sergeant, Randy Castle, cornered Carr in a small, dark churchyard a couple of blocks from his apartment.
With a jagged piece of concrete about twice the size of a softball clutched in his left hand, Carr (who was left handed) tried to scale a spiked fence at one edge of the yard, but he couldn’t make it. The officers were yelling at him to get down and to drop the concrete. He dropped off the fence, turned and with his left arm raised started to run directly at Castle, who was about 20 feet away.
Bowen was forward from Castle and to his right. In Bowen’s perception, Carr was charging Castle intent on bashing in the sergeant’s skull with the concrete chunk.
Both officers opened fire with their Glocks. Eleven rounds were discharged. Seven struck Carr. When the shooting stopped he was slumped against a wooden bench several feet to Castle’s left.
Castle had no clear recollection of the 5 shots he fired. He recalled Carr “throwing” the concrete at him at a point. A left-hander like the suspect, Castle instinctively turned away while raising his right hand to protect his head, and fired his rounds blindly back at his assailant with his left hand.
Bowen said he started shooting when Carr crossed his line of fire in the dead run toward Castle. There was about 5 feet between Bowen and the attacker at that moment. He fired a total of 6 rounds. Between the moment he started shooting and an awareness that Carr was “suddenly” no longer upright as a target, he had no relevant memories.
The fatal round, which ballistics determined was fired by Bowen, has entered to the left of Carr’s rectum and had followed a path roughly paralleling his spinal column straight to his heart.
Through a local attorney, surviving relatives of Carr (who included a professional football player) contacted Johnnie Cochran’s law office and a federal civil suit inevitably materialized, alleging excessive force by the officers and failure to train and supervise by the city. The municipality got out of the case on a motion for summary judgment prior to trial, but the officers remained as defendants.
At the heart of the plaintiffs’ case was an inflammatory premise: Such a fatal bullet pathway could have occurred only if Carr was already down on his hands and knees, butt in the air and no longer a threat, when the killing shot was fired. Bowen must have advanced on the suspect and pulled the trigger from behind him to create the resulting wound channel. In effect, the fatal round was an unjustified execution.
Bill Lewinski says he approached this volatile situation with no preconceived notions. “Mentally I kept myself neutral to how it would come out, good or bad,” he says. “I was interested just in understanding what happened.”
Besides the fatal round, Carr had been shot in the left hip, the left waistline, the right calf, the left wrist, the left thigh and the inside right thigh. The autopsy report clearly established each wound channel, confirming the trajectory on which each slug had penetrated into the offender’s body. All but one had struck him from the rear. However, the sequencing of the shots, whose gun some of the rounds came from (those that were through and through), and what time span the shooting covered--all were among the case’s many unknowns.
As one of the nation’s foremost authorities on reaction times and shooting dynamics, Lewinski felt that documenting the missing elements would be critical to understanding how the shooting actually unfolded and determining whether the plaintiffs’ allegations of wrongdoing might, in fact, be true.
He started by taking Ofcr. Bowen and Sgt. Castle to Oklahoma City PD’s firearms range. They’d told him that in an effort to stop the onrushing Carr they had fired as fast as they could pull the trigger that fateful night. He asked them to do that again--repeatedly--while they were videotaped by Lewinski and one of FSRC’s National Advisory Board members, Parris Ward. Ward, who heads the firm Biodynamics Engineering, is a prominent computer animator whose vivid reconstructions of police shootings and other controversial events are frequently introduced as pivotal evidence in high-profile court cases.
The videotapes offered gross time stamps of the officers shooting. But back in his lab in Pacific Palisades, CA, Ward’s ultra-sophisticated equipment was able to break down the sample firings into hundredths of a second. That revealed that the officers had been able to shoot in a range of .233 to .268 of a second per round.
Now Lewinski, working with Ward and his precision equipment, set about the laborious task of calculating the sequence and timing of every round that had struck Carr.
Lewinski figured that the round which entered Carr’s left side at waist level had to have been the initial round fired by Bowen and the first of the fusillade to hit the running suspect. “This could only have come from one officer at one point in the action,” Lewinski says.
Almost simultaneous to that round, according to investigators’ reports, Carr had stumbled and had “thrown” the concrete at Castle, who was then less than 5 feet away. The chunk hit Castle’s left shoulder.
At about the point Carr had reached in his line of travel when all this happened there was a depression in the ground that accommodated a drain grate. In the dark and malevolently focused on rushing Castle, Carr would not likely have seen this hole. If his left foot had gone down in it he would certainly have stumbled, his raised left hand would likely have involuntarily released the concrete and--most important,
Lewinski knew from his extensive study of physical dynamics--his body would have thrust sharply forward and then twisted to the right as he tried unsuccessfully to regain his balance and his right leg collapsed from the sudden, unexpected shift of his body weight. Bowen’s shots coming from the left would have contributed to this motion.
Turning right and then falling face down toward the ground would have positioned him so that most of Bowen’s 5 shots that connected--including the troublesome fatal round--would have hit him from the rear, without Bowen advancing significantly toward him.
Painstakingly, Lewinski and Ward gradually reconstructed this probable timing and sequence:
“This sequence of rounds, matched to bullet trajectories and times, when put all together makes a sensible scenario of what occurred,” Lewinski says. “Things can only happen in a certain way, and based on the science of the situation, we are confident this is the way.”
In confirming the incredible speed in which police shootings can go down, incidentally, this is a classic case: 11 rounds fired by these 2 officers in just 1.6 seconds, start to finish.
Parris Ward’s 4 dramatic animation clips recreating the shooting.
When the lawsuit went to trial in U.S. District Court last November, Ward’s elegant and gripping color animation of the shooting and Lewinski’s detailed explanation of the science behind it were highlights of the officers’ defense presented by attorneys Robert Manchester (brother of the famed historian William Manchester) and Susan Knight (wife of an Oklahoma peace officer). The jury was shown the conflict recreated in time-coded slow motion, in freeze-frames and in actual time, from a variety of angles.
The key element was the placement of Bowen’s fatal round early in the sequence. Without that being plausibly positioned and explained, the plaintiff’s spectre of a final, fatal “execution” shot might have seem much more credible.
Johnnie Cochran, who had been expected to head the plaintiff’s case, failed to show, reportedly because of health problems. An associate from Hawaii replaced him.
The new attorney tried to convince the jury that Ward’s animation was unrealistic. During cross examination, he had Lewinski get down on the courtroom floor, with his butt thrust toward the jury, and try to assume the position that he claimed Carr had been in when he took the fatal round. Lewinski could not do so--because, as he patiently explained, this was a dynamic posture that occurred ever so briefly while the suspect was falling.
The plaintiffs presented their own animated version of the shooting. But it was built backward from the alleged “execution shot,” which the plaintiffs claimed was fired after Carr had come to rest against the bench. In critiquing this scenario, Lewinski explained in detail why it was illogical and inaccurate and not based on sound principles. “They ignored science for the purpose of constructing a story that fit their conception of the shooting,” he says.
Among other things, Lewinski also testified about FSRC research that documents why the officers could not have instantly stopped shooting once Carr started to fall and was no longer an imminent threat. (This research is detailed in an article for The Police Marksman magazine titled “Time to Start Shooting, Time to Stop Shooting” and can be accessed through the FSRC website: www.forcescience.org. Click here to go directly to the article.
A member of FSRC’s Technical Advisory Board, Dr. Paul Michel, an optometrist from Littleton, CO, also testified for the defense. He explained the ambient light levels that would have existed in the courtyard and how the darkened conditions would have affected the officers’ ability to immediately perceive details of the action.
Two other defense experts have recently been added to FSRC’s Technical Board. They are Greg Karim, a retired Oklahoma City cop now heading a regional ballistics lab in Austin, TX, who testified about shell-casing ejection patterns and other firearms-related technical material, and Joe Callanan, a former Los Angeles County (CA) Sheriff’s officer now with Specialized Training Consultants in Morro Bay, CA, who reviewed the police tactics used in trying to deal with Carr.
On Nov. 22, after days of testimony and arguments, the jury returned its verdict. Four long years after the shooting occurred, the officers were finally exonerated. The plaintiffs were granted nothing, and there was no reimbursement for the substantial funds the plaintiffs’ attorneys had put forth to prepare for trial.
This case, incidentally, is the third in which Lewinski has helped to successfully defend officers against Johnnie Cochran’s legal armada.
II. TIMELY INFO ON “SHOTS FIRED”
A timely article on “Surviving ‘Shots Fired’ Calls” by FSRC National Advisory Board member Dave Grossi appears in The Law Enforcement Trainer magazine (4th quarter 2004), just published by the American Society for Law Enforcement Training.
Grossi reinforces the risks of these common but hazardous calls by citing a number of cases of officer deaths resulting from them, and reviews appropriate tactics for approaching them.
The value of the article was underscored a few days ago in Ceres, CA, when an AWOL Marine fired a shot into the pavement of a liquor store parking lot. He then went inside and told the clerk, “Somebody just fired at me. Call the police.”
Minutes later officers arrived in multiple units. Waiting with an assault rifle, the suspect shot 2 officers, who went down. One was able to crawl to safety. The other died when the suspect ran up to him and fired 2 more rounds into the back of his head.
Several hours later in another confrontation with police, the suspect himself was killed, apparently the successful initiator of a suicide-by-cop.
A good reminder not to take any dispatch for granted. In this case, the “victim/complainant” turned out to be the perpetrator. Under such circumstances any officer responding in the wrong mindset could be a ready candidate for assassination.
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