A Mississippi jury has rejected a civil lawsuit seeking money damages from two police officers who fatally shot a man while serving a warrant at the wrong house.
A federal court jury in Oxford on Thursday ruled that Southaven officers Zachary Durden and Samuel Maze had not violated the civil rights of Ismael Lopez when Durden shot him to death in 2017. The verdict came after a four-day trial in a lawsuit by Claudia Linares, the widow of Lopez, who sought $20 million in compensation.
"The verdict was that the jurors did not believe that the use of force used by Officers Durden and Maze was excessive in light of all the facts that they considered," attorney Murray Wells told CBS affiliate WREG-TV.
The case was notable in part because the city of Southaven had previously argued that Lopez had no civil rights to violate because the Mexican man was living in the United States illegally and faced deportation orders and criminal charges for illegally possessing guns.
A judge rejected that argument in 2020, finding constitutional rights apply to "all persons."
"There are a couple of huge factors at play. One was this unbelievable mistake of going to the wrong address and we felt it was just incompetent because they didn't even take the time to look at the boxes," Wells told WREG. "They went to the wrong side of the road, so that started this."
The city of Southaven and now-retired Southaven Police Chief Steve Pirtle were dismissed from the case in June after Senior U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills found they weren't liable for the officers' actions under federal law.
According to a report by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, Lopez and Linares were in bed on July 24, 2017, when officers knocked on the door of their trailer. The officers were intending to serve a domestic violence warrant on a neighbor across the street, but got the addresses confused.
Officers told the state investigators that they knocked on the door without identifying themselves. The door opened, a dog ran out, and Lopez pointed a rifle through the cracked door, officers said. Maze shot the dog and then, in quick succession, Durden fired multiple shots at Lopez.
A third officer on the scene told investigators he heard Durden order Lopez to drop the rifle several times before shooting Lopez.
No known video exists of the shooting.
"Those officers used tactical maneuvers to hide themselves as police officers," Wells told WREG. "They never announced that they were police and at the end of the day Ismael Lopez was shot through a door, in the back of the head."
The 41-year-old man died from a bullet that struck him in the rear of his skull, more than six feet (two meters) from the door. Police said he was running away.
Lawyers for Lopez, who died before he could be taken to a hospital, have disputed that he pointed the gun at officers. They noted his fingerprints and DNA were not found on the rifle, which was recovered more than six feet away from his body. They suggested that Durden shot Lopez because the officer was reacting to Maze shooting the dog.
When state investigators arrived, they found Lopez lying dead in a prone position with his hands cuffed behind his back in the middle of the living room. A rifle was laying on the couch.
After the shooting, a state grand jury declined to indict anyone in the case.
Southaven Mayor Darren Musselwhite, in a statement, again offered condolences to the family of Lopez, but praised the outcome.
"This verdict proves what we've believed to be correct since day one as our officers responded appropriately considering the circumstance of being threatened with deadly force," Musselwhite said. "We've stood behind them during the last six years for this very reason and, for their sake, are glad this trial is over."
Wells told WREG it's uncertain what the future holds now for Lopez's widow.
"We look at whether or not we want to take this up or whether or not this closes a chapter of her life and she's just able to move on," Wells said.
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