A D.C. Superior Court judge directed a verdict against a District policeman and the city government yesterday in a civil case arising from the death of Gregory J. Coleman, a 16-year-old who was fatally shot while allegedly stealing a bicycle.
Judge Leonard Braman ruled that Officer Charles L. Pender, 29, and the city were negligent in Coleman's death, which occured on Aug. 11, 1972. He left it for the jury to determine how much money - if any - must be paid to Coleman's estate as a result of the incident.
The boy's mother, Barbara Hughes, is asking $260,000, according to Philip J. Hirschkop, her attorney.
At the same time that he found against Pender and the District, Braman ordered that former Police Chief Jerry V. Wilson be dropped as a defendant. Mayor Walter E. Washington was dropped from the case earlier.
The judge acted at the close of a day in which Pender took the witness stand and told in a halting and emotion-filled voice about an operation that began as an effort to catch bicycle thieves.
He said he and two other officers dressed in old clothes were staked out near a bicycle they had left outside a Safeway store at 21st and L Streets NW. A youth got on it Pender said and he chased him around the corner onto 21st Street and into an alley.
Pender said that as he was reaching for the fleeing youth his revolver and holster came loose from his belt. He said he grabbed for the weapon and that it accidentally discharged fatally wounding Coleman.
"The time the whole thing occurred would have to be a second or less," Pender said.
He said he and the other officers summoned an ambulance and that he put his jacket over Coleman "to keep the body heat in."
Then, he said, "I sat on the curb and began praying, asking God that everything would be all right, as far as I can remember."
In making his rulings, Judge Braman noted there had been testimony that Pender had been using a holster of an unauthorized model. He said Lt. George Long, the head of the police department's firing range before his retirement, had told the jury that a holster must have a "keeper" strap to hold a pistol in place during chases and other exertions.
The holster Pender used had no "keeper" strap. Moreover, it was a model designed to be shoved inside the waist band of trousers and had a clip that could hook over a belt.
Pender testified under cross-examination by Hirschkop that he had removed the holster and revolver from his pants and replaced it in such a way that the clip was not hooked over the belt shortly before he began pursuing Coleman.
When he felt the gun begin to "get loose," he said, he still tried to apprehend the youth.
Former Police Chief Wilson testified that it was accepted police practive to break off a pursuit whenever it appears that an officer may lose his weapon. Asked about this by Hirschkop, Pender replied:
"I could have been prosecuted for failing to make an arrest. I was in the process of making an arrest as the shooting occurred."
"But the first touching was your bullet going into his back?" Hirschkop asked.
"Yes, sir," said Pender.
Judge Braman said Pender was under a legal duty to exercise "the highest degree of care" in his handling of his service revolver because the weapon was "a lethal instrumentality." In the course of the chase, Braman said, Pender had to choose between making an arrest or retrieving his gun.
"As fate would have it, he grabbed the trigger," he said.
Pender was found innocent of all criminal charges arising from the incident at a jury trial that ended in January, 1976. He is now a student at the police academy. A department spokesman said this was because all officers who are relieved of duty for a year or more must undergo the training course again. Pender was put on administrative leave with pay from the time of the shooting until the criminal charges had been resolved.
Hirschkop said Coleman's mother was asking $260,000 based on a formula that includes the following factors, which he said experts had told the cocrt were common to black males: a working life of 44.2 years beginning at age 18; a 26 per cent discount for the earnings in those years for Coleman's personal living expenses; a 15 per cent discount for taxes; earnings based on a laborer's wages beginning at about $7,000 a year; and increases compounded at 5 per cent a year for raises and inflation.
Police department policy is to pay damages for most officers who incurliabilities in the line of duty, but there is no requirement in law that this be done. A department official said there are about 200 to 300 lawsuits against officers pending at any given time.