A federal judge has ruled that a family’s lawsuit may proceed against a police officer who shocked their son in the groin with a Taser the night the teen died, though the ruling also limited potential damages. The Mesquite Police Department’s treatment of Graham Dyer was detailed last year by the American-Statesman as part of the newspaper’s “A Question of Restraint” series of stories about the nearly 300 people who died in Texas between 2005 and 2016 during or shortly after their arrests.
Graham, a native of the Northeast Texas town of Paris, was having a bad LSD trip when police arrested him on the night of Aug. 13, 2013. On the way to the Mesquite jail, he repeatedly asked where he was and slammed his head over and over against metal supports in the back of the police cruiser.
Videos that Mesquite officials refused to turn over to the family, but which Graham’s parents later obtained from federal authorities, showed an officer reaching into the darkened back seat and repeatedly shocking Graham in the crotch. Another officer held the 18-year-old down by his hair. After being found unresponsive in his cell, Graham was taken to a Dallas hospital, where he later died of what the medical examiner concluded were self-inflicted head injuries.
The ruling represents only a partial victory for parents Kathy and Robert Dyer. In their lawsuit, the couple claimed the six Mesquite officers who arrested and transported their 5-foot-4, 110-pound son used excessive force on him by shocking him multiple times with their stun guns. They also said the police did not provide the medical care Graham required while in their custody.
Law enforcement officers have a duty to care for their prisoners, including protecting them from hurting themselves. In their filings, the Dyers noted their son could be observed slamming his head against the police car more than 50 times, and that no medical evaluation had been performed when Graham was taken to the city jail. Two of the officers were later disciplined for failing to seat belt the teen during the trip.
In her ruling this month, however, U.S. District Judge Jane Boyle concluded the officers had not been negligent in caring for Graham. She wrote that even if police might have been inattentive, the law required the Dyers to prove the officers “knew of and disregarded an excessive risk” to Graham’s health or safety.
To Kathy Dyer, that seemed plain. “If I had seen Graham behaving like that I would have gotten him to the hospital as quickly as possible,” she said. “Simple as that. Anyone else would do the same for anyone they care even a little bit about. But they didn’t do that for Graham. No one was there to help. How do you justify that?”
But Boyle found that because the Mesquite police had summoned paramedics while arresting him, they did not show indifference to his medical needs before taking him to jail. And, though several officers should have known that Graham had seriously harmed himself during the trip, they did not intend to hurt him and therefore could not be sued.
The Dyers also claimed that several Mesquite officers had used excessive force on Graham by shocking him with Tasers “in multiple locations of his body, including his testicles.” The Mesquite Police Department later concluded only officer Alan Gafford had used excessive force for shocking Graham in the groin for approximately 8 seconds.
Boyle determined that the other officers could not be sued for their actions. However, she agreed that the Dyer family’s claims against Gafford could proceed. In her ruling, she rejected police claims that Graham needed to be shocked because he posed a threat to officer safety.
Noting that Graham had been arrested only for the minor offense of public intoxication and was not attacking any of the officers while handcuffed in the back of the police cruiser, she wrote, “A jury could reasonably find that tasing Graham in the crotch for eight seconds could not have been reasonably calculated to protect any officer from harm.”
Kathy and Robert Dyer also had asserted the police officers were responsible for turning a minor drug emergency into a police fatality. “The undue and baffling escalation in force … was the driving factor and direct cause of Graham’s escalation in self harm,” they wrote in court filings.
But the judge disagreed. While Boyle allowed the case against Gafford to continue, she also ruled that the Dyers could pursue only limited damages because they failed to prove that the officer’s Taser shocks directly caused Graham to fatally slam his head against the car’s interior.
“Because Graham was hitting his head both before and after Officer Gafford tased him, the Court finds that the video is not evidence that the tasing caused Graham to hit his head,” the judge wrote.
The city of Mesquite’s attorney, Joe Tooley, said he was pleased with the ruling, which he said largely favored the city. The Dyers’ attorney, Susan Hutchison, could not be reached for comment. In an email, Kathy Dyer said she intended to pursue the remaining claim against Gafford.
The family’s initial lawsuit against the officers had been dismissed when Mesquite refused to turn over police videos from the night Graham died. The city cited Texas open records laws that permit law enforcement agencies to withhold their investigative records if a suspect isn’t convicted, noting that Graham died before his charges could be heard.
The family later used federal Freedom of Information Act laws to obtain the videos from the FBI, which had investigated Graham’s death at Kathy Dyer’s request. Although Texas lawmakers last year heard a bill that would have changed the law, it died before legislators could vote on it.
What We Reported
The American-Statesman has been following the Dyers pursuit of justice in the death of their teenage son for more than a year. After the newspaper’s April 2017 story, part of its “A Question of Restraint” series, about how the Mesquite police withheld records of Graham Dyer’s death while in their custody, the couple testified at the Legislature in an unsuccessful effort to change the state’s open records laws. An FBI civil rights investigation into the case is ongoing.