More than two years after Byron Carter Jr. was killed in a confrontation with Austin police, a federal jury on Tuesday declined to award his parents compensatory damages, finding that officer Nathan Wagner did not violate their son’s constitutional rights by opening fire on a car in which Carter had been a passenger.
The verdict, reached after more than four hours of deliberations, marked an emotional ending to a civil case that has garnered wide community debate over accusations that police use excessive force disproportionately against minority residents.
Byron Carter Sr. and Felicia Wallace had been seeking up to $1.5 million in damages for the mental anguish and loss of companionship in the lawsuit filed against Wagner and the Austin Police Department. Moments after the jury’s decision was read, Carter Sr. held back tears and Wallace wept quietly, clinging to family members who escorted her outside.
The civil trial, which began last week, gave the public the first full picture of the events that led up to the controversial shooting the night of May 30, 2011.
Wagner and his partner, Jeffrey Rodriguez, testified that they had been out on bike patrol when they began following Carter Jr. and his friend, Leyumba Webb, because they looked suspicious. The officers eventually found them in a car parallel-parked on East Eighth Street, but before the officers could exchange words with the men, the car struggled to get out of the parking spot and accelerated in their direction, forcing them to jump out of the way and hitting Rodriguez in the shin, they told jurors.
On the witness stand, Webb recalled that he was shifting the car into gear when Carter yelled. “ ‘Go.’ Just ‘go,’ like we were in danger,” Webb testified he heard. Webb, now 18, said he had no idea it was police officers who were approaching them.
In closing arguments, attorney Adam Loewy, who represented Carter’s family, said the officers’ actions led to the violence. He said Wagner and Rodriguez followed Carter and Webb even though they had done nothing wrong, sneaking up on them in the darkness.
“This was not normal police work,” he said. “You had officers who wanted to use the element of surprise.”
Loewy called Wagner’s self-defense claim a lie, describing Rodriguez’s wound as a mere ankle injury that the officer had sustained in a previous incident.
“Where is the dirt? Where are the scratches? There is no blood,” Loewy said, pointing to a photo of Rodriguez in the hospital. “Their entire narrative is predicated by the fact that Rodriguez was hit by an accelerating car on the shin … but I believe 100 percent that is a lie.”
Attorney Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez, who represented Wagner and the Police Department, countered that Carter was sitting in the front passenger’s seat with cash on his lap and had seen the officers. Webb put the officers in danger and in fear for their lives when he pressed hard on the pedal intending to flee, Icenhauer-Ramirez said. He reminded jurors of testimony by Chief Art Acevedo, who called Wagner’s use of force disciplined and controlled the night of the fatal shooting.
When an officer puts on a blue uniform and goes to work every day, he does not give up his right to protect himself, Icenhauer-Ramirez told jurors. “That is all Nathan Wagner was doing on this occasion, and I ask you to understand that,” he said.
In a statement released Tuesday after the jury’s decision was read, the Police Department said the facts of the case confirmed Wagner and Rodriguez were placed in a life-threatening situation that required the use of deadly force. But, it said, “no officer ever wants to be in the position of having to take the life of another.”
In a phone interview Tuesday evening, Icenhauer-Ramirez said jurors examined all the evidence and arrived at the right decision. “We are very pleased with the verdict,” he said. “The jury has vindicated officer Wagner.”
But outside the courthouse after the verdict, Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, called the case another example of the criminal justice system failing young, black men and their families.
“We know what those officers did was wrong, we know that justice was not served, and we are going to fight to change the system from the top down,” he said.
Loewy said the trial was fair but the law made it difficult to prove Wagner used excessive force. “I believe this was a trial that should have been won,” he said.