Ohio cop acquitted of killing unarmed woman
By Jennifer Feehan
The Toledo Blade
LIMA, Ohio — Police officers filling the cramped courtroom breathed a sigh of relief, and family members of Sgt. Joseph Chavalia gasped and whispered, “Thank God.”
And those who loved Tarika Wilson cried out in anger and frustration as a judge read the two “not guilty” verdicts for Sergeant Chavalia yesterday.
“We’re supposed to take this with a smile? We’re supposed to believe in justice?” asked an incredulous Ivory Austin II, whose half-sister was shot to death by the veteran police officer during a Jan. 4 drug raid at her home.
After hearing 3½ days of testimony in Allen County Common Pleas Court, the jury of four white men and four white women deliberated a little more than three hours before returning the not-guilty verdicts for misdemeanor charges of negligent homicide and negligent assault.
The jury had been charged with determining whether Sergeant Chavalia, 52, was negligent when he fired his fully automatic rifle from a dark stairway at a shadowy figure he said he believed was firing at him. His three shots killed Wilson, 26, and injured her 1-year-old son, Sincere, who was in her arms. The youngster, who was hit in the shoulder and finger, had to have one of his fingers amputated because it was all but shot off.
Lead defense attorney Bill Kluge — one of four attorneys representing the sergeant — said afterward that he hoped the jury’s decision would settle the unrest and distrust of police that erupted in the wake of the shooting of Wilson, who was biracial, by the white police officer.
“We hope this will bring peace to the community,” Mr. Kluge said. “We tried to explain why Joe used deadly force that night.”
As of late last night, Lima police said no verdict-related disturbances had been reported.
Mr. Kluge said no officer wants to kill another person yet many of the SWAT team members who took the stand during the trial testified that if they were placed in Sergeant Chavalia’s position, they would have done exactly what he did.
The defendant himself took the stand last week and unapologetically told the jury that as he neared the top of the staircase moments after the SWAT team burst into the Third Street house, he spotted movement down the hallway behind him. He said he saw a shadowy figure he believed to be an adult move in and out of a bedroom doorway, appearing at the same time he heard gunfire. He returned fire.
“There was absolutely, positively no doubt in my mind right then and there that whatever this was is shooting and they’re trying to kill me,” he told the jury on Thursday.
As it turned out, the gunfire had come from the kitchen where two members of the SWAT team had fired at two pit-bull dogs let loose on the officers by Wilson’s boyfriend, Anthony Terry, who was the target of the raid. Police found no weapons in the house but discovered Wilson’s five other children in the bedroom where she and Sincere were shot.
Since the fatal shooting took place seven months ago, police remained mum about the circumstances. Even after Seregant Chavalia was indicted by an Allen County grand jury in March, no one would say why the sergeant fired at the unarmed woman and her child.
The trial provided that answer, but it was hard for some to swallow.
“We’ve got to do better. We’ve given people the license to kill,” Jason Upthegrove, president of the Lima chapter of the NAACP, said afterward.
The Rev. Arnold Manley, pastor of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, said he came to the trial to see justice prevail but that did not happen.
“As a pastor, I’m hurt deeply that we can walk away from this and say justice has been done,” he said. “… How do I go out to tell the people on the streets, ‘Let the law prevail’? How do I say that? White man justice. Black man grief.”
‘It constituted a threat’
Mr. Kluge refuted allegations that the shooting was racially based.
“Whether the shadowy figure behind the door was white, black, from Mars or from Venus, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “It constituted a threat.”
Police officers are permitted to use deadly force to defend themselves or others from imminent risk of death or serious injury or to prevent the escape of a fleeing, dangerous suspect.
Still, it was difficult for family members of Wilson to believe that the 5-foot, 2-inch mother of six presented a deadly threat. Mr. Austin said it didn’t help that the jury had no people of color sitting on it.
“Who could actually relate to my sister on that jury?” he asked. “You need people from all walks of life.”
Special Prosecutor Jeff Strausbaugh said he did not believe the jury’s racial makeup had any impact on its verdict because “there wasn’t any type of racial motivation involved in the case.”
“The jury’s verdict is what it is, and I will respect their verdict,” he said.
Mr. Strausbaugh said he believed the jury was influenced strongly by the judge’s legal instructions in which they were told they could not consider the officer’s action with the benefit of “20-20 hindsight,” but had to look at the case from the officer’s perspective at the time of the shooting.
Sergeant Chavalia, who remains on paid leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation to be completed by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, made no comments afterward.
Mr. Kluge said it was unlikely Sergeant Chavalia would be working as a police officer in Lima again, but declined to say whether he was planning to retire.
Lima Police Chief Greg Garlock said he was relieved.
A lone protester
“Obviously, I am pleased with the verdict of not guilty. Our feeling was there was no criminal conduct exhibited in this matter,” he said.
After the verdicts were read about 5 p.m., a lone protester carried signs reading, “Police accountability now” and “Liberty and justice for some?” Maria Williams, who held the signs, called out to passing motorists, “Another police acquittal. Can it be justice for Tarika? Stop police brutality now. Stop it now.”
Ms. Williams said she was there for Wilson and other victims of police violence.
“I’m the voice for Tarika right now because she couldn’t be here. We have to be the voice for the voiceless,” she said. “How can it be that a mother and her baby die at the hands of a public servant?”
Mr. Upthegrove said the verdicts didn’t surprise him but sickened him. He was dismayed too to see the handful of people who showed up in support of Wilson’s family.
“You can look around and see a total of about 15 people here,” he said. “It’s another example of how there’s very low value on a black life in this community.”
In closing arguments yesterday, Mr. Strausbaugh told the jury that the fact that Sergeant Chavalia fired the weapon that killed Wilson and injured her son was undisputed.
The only issue, he said, was whether he acted negligently, meaning he showed “a substantial lapse of due care” when he pulled the trigger.
Mr. Strausbaugh said in his mind the officer was indeed negligent: Sergeant Chavalia did not identify his target, which was in fact an unarmed mother with a baby in her arms.
He said Sergeant Chavalia’s contention that he thought the gunfire came from the bedroom was inconsistent with the testimony of the officer standing just one step behind him on the stairs who told the jury he thought the gunfire came from downstairs.
“There wasn’t so much as a verbal threat that came out of that room before he fired,” Mr. Strausbaugh said.
He said the officer should be held accountable; otherwise “you end up with a situation like this where officers are never wrong.”
Boyfriend gets blame
Mr. Kluge told the jury Anthony Terry was to blame for Wilson’s death, Sincere’s injuries, and for putting Sergeant Chavalia in front of a jury on criminal charges. He also put some of that blame on Wilson herself.
“Why would she put those children in that position? I don’t know the answer to that,” Mr. Kluge said. “Love is a strange thing.”
He said Wilson could have changed the course of events if she had identified herself to the officer. Instead, he said, she moved in and out of the doorway “in a classic shoot-and-cover stance.”
“Why didn’t she yell out, ‘I have children here. I’m unarmed. I have children here, please’? We don’t know,” Mr. Kluge said.
Copyright 2008 The Toledo Blade