A Prince George's County police officer who shot and paralyzed an unarmed man in 2002 said in a lawsuit deposition that he fired because the man, who was walking away with his back to the officer, reached toward his waistband. It was the officer's first public account of the incident.
The officer, Cpl. Charles K. Ramseur, said in the June 10 deposition that the man he shot, Desmond E. Ray, 24, ignored orders to show his hands and get on the ground.
One of Ramseur's rounds, fired from an MP5 submachine gun, hit Ray in the back, severing his spinal cord. A second shot sailed into a nearby home and narrowly missed a 73-year-old woman before slamming into a freezer. The incident, on Dec. 11, 2002, was the fourth time Ramseur had shot and wounded someone since 1992. One of the shootings occurred while Ramseur was moonlighting as a club security guard, and the others were while he was on duty. One of the other people the officer shot also was unarmed.
In each of the three shootings by Ramseur before the Ray encounter, police officials said they investigated and found no wrongdoing by the officer. Ramseur is suspended with pay pending the outcome of the department's investigation of the Ray shooting.
Ramseur, a defendant in a lawsuit by Ray, testified in the deposition that he never saw Ray wielding a weapon, but assumed Ray was armed. Ramseur, 42, a 15-year member of the police force, said he assumes everyone is armed until they have been patted down.
The shooting occurred in Capitol Heights. Ramseur was part of a SWAT team that was preparing to serve a search warrant for drugs on a house. Ray was not named in the warrant.
The unmarked police van that Ramseur and other SWAT officers were in rolled up to the driveway of the house, and the officers piled out. Ramseur testified that Ray jumped out of a car parked in the driveway and started to walk away.
"He was kind of shuffling along, kind of looking like he was making [up] his mind whether he was going to run or not," Ramseur said. "I saw him look back over his shoulders a couple of times." With his left arm, Ray made a "flinging motion," and threw something, which Ramseur believed to be drugs, Ramseur said.
"And his left hand goes to his left side. I still give him more commands -- 'show me your hands, get on the ground.' He kind of stops and hesitates for a second and he's kind of standing there," Ramseur testified. "And then he kind of shifts his weight from side to side and reaches in his waistband area. I fire. He starts to turn. I fire, and he goes down."
The deposition was provided to The Washington Post by lawyer John E. Smathers, who is representing Ray. Smathers questioned Ramseur during the deposition. Ramseur did not return a phone call to a home listed in his name. The associate county attorney defending him in the lawsuit also did not return a phone call seeking comment on the case.
In December, a grand jury declined a request by State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey to indict Ramseur on charges of first- and second-degree assault and reckless endangerment in the Ray shooting. That same month, Lt. William Gray of the police internal affairs unit recommended that Ramseur be exonerated in the Ray shooting. A review panel of high-ranking county police commanders and a civilian manager requested that Gray provide additional information.
In April, the panel concluded that Ramseur was not justified in shooting Ray, and recommended that the officer be sanctioned. A civilian review panel will study the case and make a recommendation to police Chief Melvin C. High.
Officials said the chief will weigh the recommendations and the evidence and decide what action, if any, the department should take against Ramseur. Possible sanctions range from a written reprimand to termination.
In a 2003 interview, Ray disputed key elements of Ramseur's account. Ray said he was never inside the parked car, never possessed or tossed drugs, and did not reach for his waistband. After Ray was shot, police said they found a small plastic bag containing crack cocaine near him. Ray was charged with drug possession, but a District Court judge acquitted him in October.
In the 301-page deposition, Ramseur testified that he fired from a position of cover, from behind a car. Ramseur said he intended to fire a "string" of shots at Ray, but slipped and got off just two rounds. Ramseur testified that he believes that under Maryland law, it is acceptable to shoot someone in the back "if you believe your life is in jeopardy."
"There's no hard and fast rule," said William C. Brennan, who has defended several county police officers. "Officers are trained to use deadly force to defend their lives and the lives of others. If someone has his back to an officer and is about to shoot an innocent person, I could see where the use of deadly force would be acceptable in those circumstances."
After Ray went down, Ramseur testified, he and about a half-dozen other SWAT officers served the search warrant while another officer "covered" Ray. No charges resulted from the raid. Ramseur testified that he did not search Ray. Smathers asked Ramseur if he was curious whether the man he had shot had been armed.
"I pretty much didn't care that night," Ramseur replied. "We had stuff to do."
Ramseur also testified that he applied for and received workers' compensation for nightmares he had after he shot and wounded another unarmed man in the abdomen in June 2000.
In that incident, Ramseur shot and seriously wounded Jose Buruca-Melgar behind an Adelphi pizza parlor. Buruca-Melgar was not suspected of or charged with any crime. Ramseur has provided various accounts of why he shot Buruca-Melgar. In one account, Ramseur said Buruca-Melgar ran toward him holding what the officer believed to be a weapon.
In a sworn deposition he gave in connection with a pending federal lawsuit filed by Buruca-Melgar, Ramseur testified he saw nothing in Buruca-Melgar's hands.
In his deposition in the Ray case, Ramseur testified that after he shot Buruca-Melgar, he had nightmares in which his Rottweiler failed to attack an intruder at his home. In the dream, Ramseur said the intruder had a knife, and "I end up shooting him a couple of times, but he doesn't go down. He stabs me, we fall down the steps, and I wake up."
When Smathers asked Ramseur whether he received a workers' compensation award for the bad dreams, Ramseur replied, "Oh, yeah. I got $12,000 or $10,000 or something."