Veteran's Family Sues Police, Counties

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The family of an Afghanistan combat veteran who was shot by a state trooper after a 14-hour standoff in 2006 has filed a $20 million wrongful death suit against the Maryland State Police and three Southern Maryland counties.

The lawsuit, filed by the wife and parents of James E. Dean, alleges that 16 individual officers, the state and St. Mary's, Charles and Calvert counties showed "malice or callous disregard" for Dean's life during the confrontation at his father's home Dec. 26, 2006.

State Police Sgt. Daniel Weaver killed Dean with a single shot after a tense overnight confrontation in which SWAT teams and armored vehicles surrounded the house in rural St. Mary's and tear gas was repeatedly fired through the windows.

"The actions of the law enforcement officers at the scene . . . needlessly provoked Dean and increased the danger to themselves and to Dean," the lawsuit says.

Roger J. Myerberg, an attorney for the Dean family, said relatives decided to file suit after the state and counties denied liability. His clients' primary goal, he said, is to ensure that the agencies change their tactics and procedures so that similar incidents can be avoided in the future.

"There is a long list of things that shouldn't be done or should be done differently in the future," Myerberg said.

Dean, 29, had received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression after serving 12 months as a sergeant leading a small infantry division in Afghanistan.

His wife, Muriel, said that he had registered with the Department of Veterans Affairs as disabled but that he nonetheless received a letter instructing him to report for duty in January for a tour in Iraq.

The night before he was killed, Dean drank heavily and began throwing dishes around the home he shared with Muriel. Fearing he might try to harm himself or her, she ordered him out of the house.

"The next time you see me, it's going to be in a body bag," he told her as he left.

When he arrived at his father's house, Dean called his sister Kelly, who, believing that Dean was suicidal, called police after she heard a gunshot. St. Mary's sheriff's deputies arrived at the house within several minutes and later called for support from two neighboring sheriff's offices and the state police.

After several hours of attempting to negotiate with Dean, who threw a police phone out the window and fired his weapon, officers began firing tear gas into the house to force him out.

The incident ended when Dean opened the front door and pointed his weapon at a state police vehicle. Weaver then shot him. Dean was declared dead at the scene about 12:45 p.m.

In the lawsuit, Dean's family alleges several missteps on the part of the law enforcement officers: They failed to allow relatives to speak to Dean, failed to involve a psychiatrist in the negotiations even though they knew he was mentally ill, and used "paramilitary type actions" against a man who they knew to be struggling with the emotional and mental scars of war.

"Unfortunately, we were left with no alternative but to file suit," Myerberg said. "This is a terrible tragedy that should never have happened."

The lawsuit comes one year after a report from the St. Mary's state's attorney concluded that Dean's death could have been avoided if officers had not taken an "overwhelmingly aggressive" approach.

At the time, then-State Police Superintendent Thomas E. Hutchins pledged to fully investigate the report's findings, but no results have been publicly released.

On the advice of attorneys, Dean's family members declined to comment. Spokesmen for the law enforcement agencies also said they could not comment, and a spokeswoman for the Maryland attorney general's office said the office had not seen the lawsuit.

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