On Christmas Eve three years ago, D.C. police Officer Norman I. Bell was riding in his patrol car when he heard a report over the radio about an apparent domestic disturbance in the 1800 block of Jackson Street NE.
There, a 25-year-old soldier named Raymond Peters, on Christmas leave from the Army, had gotten high on PCP and was prancing down the middle of the residential block, hitting cars with a large walking stick as they passed by.
Witnesses' accounts differ as to what happened when Bell arrived. The officer ordered Peters to drop the stick, and a scuffle ensued. Shocked residents standing on nearby lawns watched as Bell drew his service revolver and shot Peters once in the back, permanently paralyzing him from the chest down.
Peters and his wife of three months later filed suit against the District for more than $40 million, claiming that Bell, a 10-year police veteran who had never fired his revolver before in the line of duty, used excessive force in the incident.
But Peters never saw the case come to trial. A year ago he hoisted his limp body over a stairwell in his house and hanged himself. Now Peters' wife claims that Bell and the D.C. government are responsible for her husband's death.
Today a D.C. Superior Court jury will begin deliberating what is believed to be the first trial here of a lawsuit claiming a suicide as a wrongful death for which the city should pay.
The court action also has placed on trial the police department's methods of handling violent behavior caused by drugs or a deranged mind.
According to Robert Cadeaux, the attorney for Peters' wife Deborah, Bell should never have tried to handle the apparently deluded Peters alone, and he should have fled rather than attempt to take away Peters' stick.
District officials maintain that there is no standard for how police officers should approach deranged persons, and that Bell was forced to shoot Peters to protect himself and bystanders.
The widespread use of the hallucinogen PCP has caused numerous problems for law enforcement authorities, including physical effects that result in sometimes violent behavior among those who use it.
The U.S. attorney's office this year launched a grand jury investigation into the conduct of police officers who physically subdued a murder suspect who was high on PCP and whose heart later stopped at a police station.
The grand jury brought no charges against the officers, but U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova, while attributing the man's death to the use of PCP, said there were lingering questions about police use of force in such instances.
Police officials say they are developing a training program to instruct officers in how to deal with people who are high on PCP. Inspector Ronald D. Crytzer, head of the police training academy, said the program will outline the techniques officers should use when trying to communicate with and subdue PCP users.
Officers now are allowed to fire their weapons when faced with threats of imminent bodily harm or death.
District officials contend that Peters was a "chronic" PCP user and that he was responsible for his injuries and death. A month before the shooting, he was arrested and charged with possession of PCP. Peters was free awaiting trial on that charge when he was shot.
According to police, they were summoned to Jackson Street by Peters' sister, who said her brother was chasing her with a stick and hitting cars. Bell heard the radio call, and he told the jury he did not hear a later radio report that Peters apparently was acting "sick."
Several witnesses testified that Peters appeared to be high on drugs as he waved the stick, hit passing cars, marched along the street and jousted with motorists.
When Bell arrived, Peters was in a standoff with one motorist who brandished a night stick. Assistant D.C. Corporation Counsel Beverly J. Burke told the jury that Bell could not have known that Peters was high on drugs and that Bell had to act quickly to "defuse" the situation.
"The first thing he wanted to do was get that stick away from Mr. Peters -- not an unreasonable thing," Burke said. "He tried to defuse a situation that was dangerous to himself and everyone out there."
Bell testified that Peters refused to drop the stick, and attacked him. Peters struck the officer on the arm with the stick, Bell said, and Peters turned around and kicked him in the stomach before Bell shot him.
Bell told the jury that he fired his gun because he was afraid he would faint from the blows Peters had administered.
Other witnesses, including Deborah Peters, maintained that Peters was walking away from the officer when he was shot. Cadeaux said that until Bell arrived, Peters had not struck anyone.
"Did the officer have to shoot him to take the stick away from him?" Cadeaux asked the jury. "And did he have to take the stick away from him in order to protect himself and the people who were watching the show?"
Cadeaux suggested that Bell should have waited for reinforcements or sprayed Peters with Mace instead of using his gun. Bell acknowledged that he had earlier lost his Mace and never asked for a new supply.
Peters had been in and out of hospitals. He eventually was discharged from the Army and lost his medical benefits. On Sept. 29, 1983, a Superior Court jury convicted him on charges of assaulting a police officer and destroying property in connection with the shooting.
Deborah Peters said her husband grew more and more despondent and finally asked her and their two children to move away from him.
She came to visit him on the afternoon of Nov. 17, 1983, and found him hanging from the stair railing in the hallway.
On the floor beneath his body she found a note, reading: "This I could never be, a beast of burden . . . . There is no death. There is only eternal life."