A federal civil jury found today that a Prince George's County police canine officer should not be held liable for his actions during a 1993 incident when his police dog mauled the head and face of Takoma Park nurse Esther Vathekan as she lay sleeping in her own bed.
But after delivering the verdict clearing Officer Jeffrey Simms, one of the six jurors questioned whether the officer had been properly trained and whether the county might be liable for damages.
She and another juror said that they felt bad for Vathekan, 51, but that given the narrowly defined question they were instructed to decide--whether Simms acted reasonably and gave adequate warning that the dog was being sent into the house--they believed that Simms, 37, did what he was trained to do.
Vathekan's suit, seeking $6 million in compensatory and punitive damages and reimbursement for $60,000 in medical expenses, named Simms and the county as defendants. No trial date has been set on the claim against the county.
"The officer acted in a proper manner," said one juror, a 37-year-old Carroll County man who declined to give his name. "I feel that adequate warning was given."
Juror Stephanie White, 27, of Baltimore County, said she believed Simms and four current or former Takoma Park officers who testified that Simms cried out a warning.
Simms "did what he was trained to do," White said. "If there's a problem with the police dogs, maybe the police department has to reevaluate its procedures."
The police department is revamping the way canine officers and police dogs are trained and supervised.
U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin, who presided over the trial, ruled that Vathekan could proceed with her civil claim against the county.
Simms sent his dog, Castro, into the basement of Vathekan's home on Jan. 10, 1993, while investigating a report of a break-in. Simms testified that the dog used his mouth to open a closed door, then bounded onto the main floor of the house, where he attacked Vathekan.
The dog chomped into the back of Vathekan's scalp and the area around her right eye, requiring four operations and leaving her tear ducts permanently damaged.
During the two-day trial, Vathekan's housemate, Jonathan Lopez, whose basement apartment was broken into, testified that he was across the street when Simms went into the home and did not hear any warning given.
In April, The Washington Post detailed 13 pending civil lawsuits alleging brutality and recklessness by the 23-officer canine unit. The article also reported that the FBI is investigating whether the unit has engaged in a pattern of brutality.
The next month, officials announced changes they said were designed to reduce unnecessary and excessive attacks by police dogs. The county canine unit is now training its dogs to keep suspects at bay without biting unless the suspects try to flee or attack.
Deputy County Attorney John Bielec, who defended Simms, said, "The jury made the right decision."
Vathekan's attorney, Terrell N. Roberts III, said the verdict was "disappointing but not unexpected in light of the way the judge structured the case."
Vathekan said, "I want to see some justice in this."