Prince George's jury awards $225,000 to unarmed man shot in back by officer

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By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 7:00 PM

A Prince George's County civil jury found Thursday that a county police officer engaged in excessive force when he shot an unarmed man in the back near an Oxon Hill apartment complex in 2008, and it awarded the man $225,000 in compensatory damages.

The jury found Cpl. Cornelius Johnson liable for assault and battery on Trenton E. Brooks, 27. The jury declined to award Brooks, of Suitland, punitive damages.

The jury also found that county police Detective Tammy Irons, who charged Brooks with assaulting Johnson, falsely arrested Brooks. The jury awarded Brooks $1,000 for that count.

The jury decided that Irons did not maliciously prosecute Brooks.

"The jury sent a strong message that you can't indiscriminately shoot people in the back," said Cary J. Hansel, Brooks's attorney. "The verdict shows we are a nation of laws, and the police don't have the right to shoot members of the underclass for no reason."

Johnson, a five-year veteran of the force, declined to comment. Irons, who was not in the courtroom when the verdict was announced, did not respond to a phone message left at the police station where she works.

Associate County Attorney Timothy Fitzmaurice, who defended the officers and the county, said the verdict showed that the jury did not believe Johnson and Irons acted with malice.

According to testimony in the civil trial, Brooks and Johnson were working at the Oxon Hill Village apartment complex when the shooting occurred March 5, 2008. Brooks was part of a crew digging ditches, and Johnson, in his police uniform and patrol car, was moonlighting as a security officer for the management company that runs the complex.

Brooks testified that he had walked away from the work site to get cigarettes when he ran into a friend who was driving by. The friend stopped his car and got out, and the two men began talking, Brooks said.

Johnson drove up in his squad car, got out, grabbed him, forced him to the trunk of the police car and slammed him against the trunk, Brooks said. Brooks testified that he did not want the officer to learn that he was named in an arrest warrant, so he spun away and ran.

He said he had gone about 25 feet when he heard a gunshot, then felt bullets slam into his right buttock and left calf. When Johnson walked toward him, Brooks said, he thought it was to finish him off.

Brooks testified that Johnson said, "I told you not to move."

Johnson's account differed from Brooks's - and in some respects from his own previous account. Johnson testified that he stopped the two men because he thought they were engaged in a drug deal. He testified that Brooks pushed him, then began punching him, after which they fell to the ground. Brooks ran and was reaching for his waistband and turning toward Johnson when he fired, Johnson said. He said he feared that Brooks was reaching for a weapon.

Johnson testified that he did not pat down Brooks before he ran. Police documents show that Johnson initially said that he had patted Brooks down.

Five witnesses who saw all or part of the encounter, including Brooks, testified that Brooks never reached for his waistband.

Irons charged Brooks with second-degree assault and assault on a police officer. In a charging document, sworn out under oath, Irons wrote that Brooks inflicted bodily injury on Johnson. Under cross-examination by Hansel, Irons testified that she had no evidence or knowledge that Johnson had been injured.

A judge dismissed the assault charges against Brooks, who is jailed for a parole violation.

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