DeOnte Rawlings civil suit over fatal shooting is settled

November 11, 2011

A $100 million civil lawsuit against the District and two D.C. police officers involved in the 2007 fatal shooting of a 14-year-old Southeast Washington boy over a stolen minibike was settled late Thursday for an undisclosed amount.

The family of DeOnte Rawlings sued the city and officers James Haskel and Anthony Clay in connection with the death of the Ballou High School freshman. The officers were off duty when the shooting occurred.

Haskel has said that he and Clay were driving in Haskel’s sport-utility vehicle in pursuit of Rawlings as the teen sped off on Haskel’s minibike at the Highland Dwellings public housing complex in Southeast.

Haskel, who said the bike had been stolen from his garage earlier in the day, said Rawlings got off the bike and fired at him, prompting the veteran officer to fire eight bullets in 5.5 seconds. Rawlings was killed by a single bullet to the back of his head.

No lead residue was found on the boy’s clothing, and no gunshot residue, soot or powder was found on his fingers or hands, according to the autopsy report. No forensic evidence tied Rawlings to the shooting, and no gun was found at the scene.

Charles Rawlings said he took the settlement in the civil lawsuit of the 2007 fatal shooting of his son, Deonte, because he was “tired” and “God told me I’ve got to forgive.” (Michael Williamson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“I know my son didn’t shoot at them,” Charles Rawlings, the victim’s father, said in a Friday phone interview. “Now I’ve got some justice.”

Haskel and Clay did not return calls to their homes Friday seeking comment.

The settlement needs approval from Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier declined to comment. “The police department doesn’t comment on things like that,” she said.

D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said he was pleased that an agreement had been reached.

“In order to avoid the uncertainty of litigation . . . we thought it was in the best interest of the public as well as the Rawlings family to resolve this matter amicably,” Nathan said in a phone interview Friday. “We came to a reasonable compromise. It’s a very sad and unfortunate situation.”

It was Haskel’s third shooting on the force in 12 years. In the previous shootings, which were not fatal, he also had been off duty and was cleared.

The killing outraged residents and was one of the most emotional and controversial incidents in the city in decades. Lanier and then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) publicly promised a thorough and transparent investigation but quietly returned the officers to their jobs before the internal police investigation was completed, a move Lanier described as “not unusual” in a recent e-mail to a Washington Post reporter.

Lanier has declined to discuss the matter further, citing personnel issues.

Haskel and Clay were sued for civil conspiracy and violating Rawlings’s civil rights. Haskel was also sued for assault and battery. Federal prosecutors decided not to charge them in 2008, saying Haskel was justified in shooting Rawlings.

The trial, which had been scheduled to begin this week in U.S. District Court, was delayed after Rawlings’s attorney Gregory L. Lattimer complained to Judge Paul L. Friedman that Nathan’s office had handed him 1,700 pages of FBI documents and 51 additional crime-scene photographs at the last minute. Friedman admonished the District’s lawyers during a hearing Monday, saying that he was “ashamed.”

“This is not the way to try a case,” Friedman said.

Nathan said his office turned over the records as soon as the FBI released them.

“We weren’t sitting on it,” he said.

In a subsequent hearing, Friedman postponed the trial until January and urged both sides to settle.

Haskel and Clay have denied any wrongdoing, including using excessive force.

“Any actions taken . . . were necessary and reasonable under the circumstances and carried out pursuant to lawful authority,” the city said in court records. “All actions taken by Officer James Haskel were taken in the defense of himself and others.”

But Charles Rawlings said the officers should not have taken the law into their own hands.

“If someone took your bike, you call 911,” he said. “They knew the rules. They knew the law. If they went by the rules, my son would be alive today.”

The Post examined the case 19 months after the shooting and found a series of police missteps. Haskel and Clay failed to identify themselves as police officers and didn’t attend to the wounded Rawlings.

“I didn’t even approach him,” Haskel said in his deposition.

The officers also left the crime scene without securing it, Haskel on foot and Clay driving Haskel’s vehicle, taking crucial evidence — Haskel’s SUV had been hit by a bullet — with him.

Haskel is assigned to the special operations division. Clay, who was assigned to the police academy at the time of the shooting, now works in the department’s public information office.

Clay acknowledged in his deposition that he knew leaving the scene violated department policy.

“That was a personal decision I made,” he said.

Charles Rawlings said he took the settlement because he was “tired.”

“God told me I’ve got to forgive,” he said. “I can’t keep carrying that burden on my shoulders.”

Haskel and Clay “know they made a mistake,” he said. “They handled things real bad. Who can we trust if we can’t trust the police?”

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