Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Jury weighing suit over stun-gun death

A federal jury deliberated about two hours Tuesday in the wrongful-death trial of a former Frederick County sheriff’s deputy accused of using excessive force by shocking a man twice with an electric stun gun.

The 10-member panel ended deliberations Tuesday evening and will resume Wednesday morning.

The jury must decide by a preponderance of the evidence whether former Cpl. Rudy Torres violated Jarrell Gray’s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable force and, if so, whether the jolts, less than 30 seconds apart, were a substantial cause of his injuries.

Even if he is found to have acted improperly, Torres could be protected by immunity laws. To find him liable under federal law, the jury must accept that Torres knew or should have known his actions violated the U.S. Constitution. To find him liable under a corresponding state claim of wrongful death, the jury must accept that he acted with malice or gross negligence.

Gray’s parents, Jeffrey Gray and Tanya Thomas, are seeking $145 million in damages stemming from their 20-year-old son’s death on Nov. 18, 2007.

Both sides agree Torres shocked Gray after responding alone to a report of an outdoor fight involving three young men in a subdivision just south of Frederick. The deputy gave Gray a five-second jolt after the intoxicated young man didn’t obey his commands to lie down and remove his hands from inside his front waistband, Torres testified. A plaintiffs’ eyewitness, Gray’s cousin, said in a deposition that Gray was starting to go down, with his hands at his sides, when he was shocked.

He fell face-first and didn’t respond to Gray’s further commands to show his hands, hidden beneath his torso, so Torres shocked him again, all agree. Gray was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. A medical examiner listed the cause of death as undetermined and found that it was associated with restraint and alcohol intoxication. The only means of restraint mentioned in the report was the stun gun.

A Frederick County grand jury ruled in 2008 that Torres’ actions were justified and that he followed police protocol. Expert witnesses at his trial disagreed about whether Torres reasonably believed that Gray still posed a threat after the first shock.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Gregory Lattimer portrayed the 13-year sheriff’s department veteran as a sadist. In his closing argument Tuesday, Lattimer said shocking an unresponsive and possibly unconscious person lying face-down on the ground was akin to kicking a defenseless dog.

“They say you don’t kick a man when he’s down. You don’t tase a man when he’s unconscious,” Lattimer said.

Defense attorney Daniel Karp said in his summation that that there was no evidence the shocks killed Gray despite a medical examiner’s testimony that there was a “temporal relationship” — a short span of time — between the shocks and the death.

“Sometimes if someone is tased, they end up dead,” Karp said. “That’s like saying if I eat a ham sandwich and then I die, that the ham sandwich is the cause of my death.”

Lattimer told the jury the relationship was clear: “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out.”

Karp suggested that Gray succumbed to an irregular heartbeat caused by his unaccustomed binge drinking, a condition called “holiday heart.”

Gray’s death and eight others in Maryland linked to stun guns led the state attorney general’s office in 2009 to recommend more stringent training on the use of the devices.

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department advised police officers to avoid shocking suspects multiple times or for prolonged periods to reduce the risk of potential injury or death. The report stemmed from a study of nearly 300 cases in which people died from 1999 to 2005 after police shot them with stun guns.

It found that most of the deaths were caused by underlying health problems and other issues. Of those cases, the experts examined 22 in which the use of stun guns was listed as an official cause of death.

Torres retired from the sheriff’s office and now works as a Fairfax County, Va., dispatcher.