An appellate court on Tuesday reversed the dismissal of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the parents of a man shot and killed in 2011 by a Lafayette police officer, saying the lower court did not properly consider all the facts in the 21-year-old man’s death when it decided the case.
Unless it’s appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion means a jury will decide the merits of the suit filed by the family of Quamaine “Dee” Mason, who died at a Lafayette apartment complex after an officer shot him seven times while investigating a reported armed robbery.
Jeffery Speer, a Lafayette attorney representing Mason’s parents, Billy and Brenda Mason, said the opinion is a victory for the family.
“In the long scheme of things, this is a very good day for us, and I think it’s a good day for the people of Acadiana. It may well save somebody’s life,” Speer said in a phone interview.
An attorney with Borne & Wilkes — the firm representing Lafayette Consolidated Government, Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft and the officer who killed Mason, Sgt. Martin Faul — did not immediately respond on Tuesday for comment or information as to whether an appeal is planned.
In a phone interview on Tuesday, Billy Mason said his family is elated by the court’s opinion, which comes almost four years after his son’s death. The family filed the civil suit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages, after a grand jury in July 2012 declined to indict Faul in the killing.
“I’m glad I stayed after it,” Billy Mason said. “I’m so emotional right now.”
Quamaine “Dee” Mason died on Dec. 9, 2011, at his girlfriend’s apartment on Theater Street after a heated argument that led one of the woman’s guests to call police, alleging he broke into the apartment. Within minutes, Mason and the girlfriend, Racquel Babino, walked out of the apartment to find three officers, including Faul, with their weapons drawn.
Faul alleged that Mason, who legally carried a gun on his waistband that night, appeared ready to fight and reached for his weapon, at which point Faul released his canine on the man and fired five shots into Mason’s chin, chest, shoulder and both arms. After Mason lay prone on the ground, Faul fired another two shots into the man’s back, claiming he moved his arm as if he were trying to reach the gun, according to court documents.
In the opinion written by Judge Priscilla Owen, the three-judge panel abstained from deciding whether Faul was justified in firing the first five shots. But they questioned the latter two shots, saying a reasonable jury could conclude that a “reasonable officer in Faul’s position” did not have probable cause to shoot once Mason lay wounded on the ground.
In a partial concurrence, Judge Patrick Higginbotham said he dissents from the majority’s refusal to address the first five shots, an abstention he said leaves the door open for another ruling in the officer’s favor.
“Even if Officer Faul actually believed (Mason) was going to fight him — despite his complete compliance and facing three drawn guns — no reasonable police officer could perceive such behavior as life threatening,” Higginbotham wrote, further suggesting a jury could conclude Faul’s actions “paint the picture of an officer eager to engage in a deadly confrontation.”
Still, the majority said the district court failed to consider testimony that supported the Masons’ case, appearing “to have relied entirely on the officers’ account of events” instead of also including the testimony of Babino, Mason’s girlfriend.
Courts are also supposed to consider testimony “viewed in the light most favorable” to one party when the other moves to dismiss the case through a summary judgment, which U.S. District Judge Richard Haik granted in December 2013.
Babino testified that after Faul fired the first five shots, she saw Mason “ ‘pick up his head and put it back down’ but did not see Mr. Mason ‘move his body, the trunk of his body,’” according to testimony cited in the opinion.
The judges said the lower court “must give full credence to Babino’s testimony,” which accounts for “the Masons’ strongest evidence” in the case.
A forensic expert for the defense also testified that because of where Mason had been shot in his right arm, he would have been able to make a slight movement with his right elbow once he lay on the ground, but it would have been “extremely painful.” In the opinion, the judges state that speculative testimony should have led the lower court to consider Mason incapacitated once he lay on the ground — something a “reasonable jury” could also conclude.
The Masons also allege irregularities in the shooting investigation, noting that their son’s gun had been moved from his waist and tampered with before State Police investigators arrived at the scene. The family, in its appeal, also noted that Faul fired an eighth bullet into a wall that police patched and cleaned with bleach.
The suit also notes statements Faul made to a State Police investigator after his initial interrogation that suggest he was trying to find out what would be reported about the location of Mason’s gun. The comment was captured on video when Faul appeared unaware that the video was still taping.
Faul, who was a corporal when he shot Mason, is now a patrol sergeant, according to Lafayette Police Department spokesman Cpl. Paul Mouton.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.