By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Jason Taft was yelling at the carryout's cook through the security glass. He started pulling at the kitchen's door and spat. He threatened to fight.
The commotion caught the eye of D.C. police detective Kevin McConnell, 45, who was returning to the station in his unmarked cruiser on what had been a routine shift.
Soon, he and Taft were pushing, grappling and gouging at each other's eyes. They tumbled around the store, then outside. A minute or two later, Taft was dead, shot in the back as he tried to scramble away. First responders found McConnell dazed, bent over and breathing hard. The gun that fired the fatal shot was in his right hand. That's when the tough question arose: Was the shooting justified? Even now, two years later, not everyone agrees.
In recent months, the D.C. area has seen a rash of police-involved shootings. The outcomes of many such investigations are never made public, and the inquiries are often conducted behind closed doors. In Taft's case, recent trial testimony and internal police records provide a rare window into such an incident and how different sides -- the government, Taft's relatives and a civil jury -- have judged McConnell's actions that August night.
Federal authorities declined to prosecute the detective. A civil jury, weighing a lawsuit brought by Taft's family, found in the detective's favor last week. But the police department has concerns about the incident and is seeking to fire McConnell, according to court papers in the civil suit.
Trial testimony and police records indicate that the incident started when Taft appeared at the Eddie Leonard's Carryout in the 2400 block of Good Hope Road SE about midnight Aug. 3, 2007. He had been drinking and was soon arguing with the cook, Kongri Chen, who told him the place was closed. Taft, a 25-year-old construction worker on probation for assaulting a police officer, started yelling and pulling at the door separating Chen from the customers. Chen was alarmed and called 911.
McConnell, who joined the force in 1997, was returning to the 7th District station when he saw the altercation at the carryout. He was in plainclothes, wearing a black short-sleeved shirt, gray slacks and black shoes. His badge dangled from a chain around his neck, he and Chen said. He entered the store, shouted that he was a police officer and Taft approached him, according to McConnell and Chen. McConnell testified that he pushed Taft back.
Two women inside the store testified that they did not hear McConnell identify himself as a police officer and watched as he charged into the store and smashed Taft against a wall.
Soon, McConnell and Taft were fighting. As they wrestled and bumped against the walls, the detective was yelling at Taft to "stop resisting," according to McConnell. The detective tried to use a wrestling hold, but Taft broke free and ran for the door. McConnell grabbed Taft's shirt, and the pair rolled outside onto the concrete. Taft squeezed McConnell's neck and said, "I'm going to choke you out," the detective testified. McConnell said he felt like he was blacking out.
"I was thinking, 'I lost this fight,' " he testified.
McConnell said he drew the gun on his right hip and pulled the trigger. He said he was dazed and heard only a click. Taft had been shot in the right thigh and began to clamber away, according to the women in the carryout.
McConnell testified that he could barely discern the man's figure ahead of him. He was worried that Taft was going to "continue the attack," the detective testified, and he fired two more rounds. One struck Taft in the back, possibly six to 15 feet from McConnell, according to internal police reports. Taft stumbled and collapsed on Good Hope Road. He died at a hospital.
Taft's sister, Christol English, sued D.C. police in the District's federal court, alleging that McConnell violated her brother's rights by killing him. Her attorney, Gregory Lattimer, told jurors that McConnell was an "out-of-control police officer" who started the fight. Lattimer said Taft was trying to flee when he was shot in the back. "How can anyone do that to a human being?" he said to jurors.
McConnell was represented at the trial by Shana Frost and Robert A. Deberardinis of the D.C. attorney general's office. Deberardinis told jurors that the detective "did his duty" and was justified in shooting Taft.
The jury ruled in the detective's favor a day after getting the case. McConnell declined to comment to The Washington Post after the trial, but he has told the Washington Examiner and Washingtonian magazine that he hopes police officials change their minds about firing him. The officials say they think that McConnell violated department policy when he fired the fatal shot.
Internal affairs investigators wrote in a report, which jurors never saw under a judge's ruling, that McConnell should have waited for backup before entering the carryout. He also was not carrying pepper spray, which is a control agent police can use before resorting to a gun, as required under department rules. Still, the investigators found, McConnell "had a legitimate concern for his life" when he fired the first shot.
But the next two were not justified, the investigators wrote, because "they were only fired during a perceived attack. . . . Mr. Taft did not pose an immediate threat when the secondary rounds were fired." An internal trial board of police supervisors will hear the case next.