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Lambert family to get its day in court

SoVaNow.com / March 10, 2016
A federal judge has declined to dismiss a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit brought against the South Boston Police Department by the family of Linwood Lambert Jr., who died in May 2013 after he was tased multiple times by three town officers outside the emergency room at Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital.

U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser issued a 34-page opinion on Monday that upheld some claims by the town — including that officers acted appropriately by arresting Lambert on the morning of May 4, 2013 after he tried to escape police custody at the hospital. Lambert had been taken to the ER after causing a disruption at the Super 8 motel on U.S. 58; upon arriving at the hospital, he kicked out a squad car window and attempted to flee, setting in motion the confrontation with police.

Kiser also sided with South Boston by ruling that officers did not show “deliberative indifference” to the medical needs of the tasered suspect that was “sufficiently shocking to the conscience” as to justify the Lambert family’s claim of damages under the 14th Amendment.

But the remainder of Kiser’s opinion represents a setback for the town, which had sought to cut short the lawsuit before it goes to trial in Danville scheduled for May 16. South Boston had argued that the three officers — Corporal Tiffaney Bratton and Officers Clifton Mann and Travis Clay — should be granted qualified immunity for their actions, which town attorneys say were reasonable in light of the potential dangers posed by Lambert, a Richmond construction worker who was under the influence of cocaine and acting erratically on the night of the incident.

Rejecting that view, Kiser ruled that the town cannot be held liable for the initial Taser charges that Bratton and Mann administered against Lambert, since he was not complying with police orders at that point. However, police must answer for subsequent Taser discharges that were delivered as Lambert lay prone on the ground, no longer resisting and under the officers’ control, Kiser ruled.

During the last six Taser charges by Bratton — out of 11 overall — and two by Mann, Lambert “was (somewhat) rocking back and forth on the ground and had come to lie face up; however, he did not attempt to rise again,” Kiser observed in his opinion. “These relatively settled circumstances, as construed in Plaintiff’s best light, did not warrant this unreasonable degree of force.”

Bratton’s final two Taser charges were administered as “the officers were holding, pinning down, and moving Decedent so as to shackle his legs,” Kiser continued. “She [Bratton] tased Decedent when he rolled nearly over — seemingly on his own but with Officer Clay and Officer Mann still holding him to the ground.

“For that brief time, Decedent was barely capable of rolling, and he remained secured to the ground. There was no immediate threat of violence or risk of flight, and the rolling over did not warrant the force used. In Plaintiff’s best light, these tasings were excessive,” read Kiser’s opinion.

Kiser also made reference to officers’ use of stun guns as Lambert was confined inside a police cruiser in a non-responsive state, raising questions about police conduct that should be settled at trial.

“In Plaintiff’s best light, the scant justification for force suggested malice and intent to harm or punish — not good-faith intent to restore discipline,” wrote the judge, referring to the backseat tasings of Lambert as he sat bloodied and dazed inside the squad vehicle.

It will be up to the court to determine at trial if police used excessive force and if the Taser use led to Lambert’s death. Attorneys for the plaintiff say Lambert died as result of being subjected to up to 20 Taser discharges; in response, town attorneys note the state medical examiner ruled that Lambert died of cardiac arrest brought on by cocaine abuse earlier that night.

Gwendolyn Smalls, the named plaintiff in the lawsuit and Linwood Lambert’s sister, said she and other family members were “very, very pleased with the decision he [Kiser] made.

“The core of my complaint survives,” she said, referring to the excessive force claim against police. “We are going to trial.

“We’re very happy, very elated.”

Lambert had been staying at the Super 8 in spring 2013 while working as a forklift operator with the construction of the South Boston Energy Project. His confrontation with police and subsequent death gained national prominence last year with an MSNBC investigative report that included the airing of video — adding to a growing debate about excessive force against African Americans in police custody.

The network’s reporting has also cast doubt on a followup investigation of South Boston officers’ conduct by Virginia State Police and the Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, which in turn has drawn complaints from the Virginia State NAACP and other civil rights groups.

On Wednesday, the NAACP renewed its demand that Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Quackenbush Martin release the full State Police investigation into the actions of officers Bratton, Mann and Clay.

Writing on behalf of the local chapter, the Rev. Kevin Chandler called on Martin “to release your findings and let the chips fall where they may. This is a reasonable request, given the time this case surfaced. As you well know, Mr. Linwood Lambert met his death almost three years ago, and your office has failed to issue a report, findings or any formal determination as to what happened.

“Your failure to release any report, findings, or decision enables the public to race down any road of speculation as to what happened and why. With you being a member of the NAACP, in no way are we trying to create an ‘us versus them’ atmosphere. We call for you to operate on one of many campaign promises that you would be ‘fair and just’. In this case you have yet to stand and properly operate.”

Concluded Chandler: “The Halifax County Branch of the NAACP will continue supporting the Lambert family. We will continue voicing our position and displeasure until your report is released. Linwood R. Lambert, Jr. should not have died while in the custody of the South Boston Police.”

Martin has declined comment on the case, saying she will withhold a response until such time as she releases her findings.

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Comments

egregious abuse of qualified immunity allows thugs to remain as police officers. This trial must be allowed to proceed. The most important sue is that AFTER being excessively tased the officers did not keep him at hospital for treatment and observation. Fatal error. Judgment for family for damages

Comments

Tracy should release a report. I really think this was an abuse of power. Cops have a hard job, but their mentality of I will come home over you is wrong. There shoot first ask questions later is wrong. When you take this job you know you might get killed. Now that said, cops should be able to shoot people that deserve it as well as citizens should be able to defend there homes an persons. But with three they should have been able to tackle him to the ground instead of taze him


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