Appeals Court strikes blow against qualified immunity for police

Jordan Smith recounts another shocking story of police murder from back in 2013 that should be better known.

It was roughly 11:30 p.m. on March 13, 2013, when Officer Paul Lehman spotted [Wayne] Jones walking along Queen Street in downtown Martinsburg. He wasn’t on the sidewalk, as city ordinance would require, so Lehman followed Jones, a 50-year-old black man who was homeless and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. After about a minute, Lehman honked, pulled over, and asked Jones for identification. Jones didn’t have any. Lehman asked if he had any weapons; Jones wasn’t sure what that meant. “Anything,” Lehman responded. “Guns, knives, clubs.” Jones did have a small fixed-blade knife tucked inside his right shirt sleeve, but he didn’t say that specifically, only that he had “something on him.”

From there, the situation quickly escalated. Lehman demanded that Jones get up against the car. Jones wanted to know why — “What do you want?” he asked — but Lehman didn’t explain. Instead, Lehman called for backup and, as Jones moved away, drew his Taser and fired. A second cop, Daniel North, rolled up on scene and also fired a Taser at Jones. Jones fled, running into the alcove in front of a bookstore down the street.

Before long, three more cops — William Staubs, Eric Neely, and Erik Herb — would arrive. Jones was struck in the neck, kicked, and put into a chokehold — the 4th Circuit opinion notes that “choking and gurgling sounds” can be heard in dashcam video recordings of the incident — before one of the officers realized that Jones had the small knife. The cops pulled away, forming a semicircle around him with their weapons drawn. Jones was limp and lying on his right side. Even though he was not moving, the cops demanded that Jones drop his knife. When he didn’t respond, all five fired their guns — a total of 22 rounds in two seconds. A majority of the shots hit Jones in the back and buttocks. He died at the scene.

So in the space of two seconds, a homeless schizophrenic black man whose only ‘offense’ was walking on the street instead of on the sidewalk ends up dead with 22 bullets in him fired by five police officers, even though he was lying limp on the ground.

This case illustrates the problem with the doctrine known as ‘qualified immunity’ that gives the police almost unlimited license to use deadly force against anyone. When they were charged with the death of Jones, lower courts gave summary judgments in favor of the police, saying that they had ‘qualified immunity’.

The idea of qualified immunity for police is that they can be insulated from charges of violating a person’s constitutional rights when they could “reasonably believe” that their actions were lawful, and it has been front and center amid protests and calls for reform since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.

In the Jones case, the officers argued in a motion for summary judgment that the case against them should be thrown out based on qualified immunity — in other words, that it should be dismissed before a jury could weigh the evidence against them.

But this week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out that lower court decision, with judge Henry F. Floyd writing, “This has to stop.”

The circuit court found that there was every reason to think that Jones was under the officers’ control, and they should have known that shooting him repeatedly was excessive. The fact that Jones had been pinned to the ground by multiple officers could certainly signal that he was secured, and the fact that he was unresponsive when they stood above him could have clued them in that he was not a threat. “The officers contend that Jones should have dropped the knife upon their commands, and that his failure to do so places his shooting in the gray zone where qualified immunity applies,” the court wrote. But, “shouting ‘drop the knife’ seconds before shooting him was, at best, farcical because it was impossible for an incapacitated person to drop a knife tucked into his sleeve.”

Indeed, in looking back to the entire incident, the court suggests that the officers’ behaviors bore directly on its deadly outcome. “Non-cooperation with law enforcement has never given officers carte blanche to use deadly force against a suspect; luckily for many of us, neither has being ‘armed’ with a small knife,” the court wrote. “Jones was not an armed felon on the run, nor a fleeing suspect luring officers into a high-speed chase. Jones was walking in the road next to the sidewalk, away from the dark shadows and blind corners of buildings at night. He was without housing and had a knife on his person. As a pedestrian, he should have been on the sidewalk, but Officer Lehman never told him that.”

How many more appalling stories of police murders are out there that have not received wide publicity?


  1. Ridana says

    I remember being told years ago in a self-defense class to walk down the middle of a street at night (if no traffic around) because it was safer than walking next to buildings, alleys and shrubberies. Attackers would be less likely to come that far out into the open, and even if they did, you’d have time to see them coming. I guess not when the attackers are the police.
    Considering how macho and “alpha male” that cops’ self-image is, I’d think the cognitive dissonance between that image and the reality of being so batshit terrified by prone and bound “suspects” that they feel the need to shoot to kill at the slightest movement or lack thereof, would make them catatonic trying to reconcile the two. They must be imagining black people as superhuman shapeshifting werewolves that can instantly break their chains and level city blocks by merely flexing, a delusion which only shows they’re utterly unfit for duty.

  2. Bruce says

    In the described scenario, even a non-injured white person on the ground wouldn’t want to “drop the knife” he wasn’t holding. The officers are implying that the “safe” thing the suspect should have done would have been to pull the knife out of his sleeve and show it to the officers, and then drop it away from himself while lying down. Instead of two seconds, he workday have been hit with 55 bullets in one second, as the officers would have been “afraid” that the immobile man on the ground was going to stab them all before any of them could shoot him once.
    The snowflake officers were clearly insane with fear, based on nothing real. They should have been forcibly confined for psychiatric treatment until they were mentally healthy enough to stand trial.

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