During the 10 minutes he spent on the side of I-10 before he shot Jonathan Victor to death, Baldwin County Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Hunady never once asked anyone on the scene before him whether they were certain the man in the car actually had a weapon.
That may be the most poignant of the many observations made by U.S. District Court Judge William Cassady last week as he denied Hunady and Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack qualified immunity in a lawsuit filed against them by Victor’s mother in response to her son’s 2017 death. Cassady’s withering observations about Hunady’s behavior in the minutes before he shot Victor, an unarmed man acting strangely after a one-car accident on the side of the interstate, illustrate exactly why it is so important for the public to be able to see body-camera footage and other information in controversial cases.
I know these days there’s a torrent of police shooting camera footage on television and it doesn’t always offer a definitive answer to what happens, but there are many instances in which what the video shows conflicts greatly with the narrative being pushed by one side or the other.
Mack has fought tooth and nail to keep the body-cam video of Victor’s shooting away from the prying eyes of the media, which led Lagniappe to take him before the Alabama Supreme Court last summer. We’re still waiting for the wheels of justice to grind out an opinion in the matter, but the civil suit filed by Victor’s mother has already served to do what Alabama’s pitiful open records “law” has not — it unclenched Mack’s grip on that footage, revealing a situation that bears little resemblance to the one the sheriff and other Baldwin County law enforcement officials described at a press conference just a few months later when they pronounced Hunady cleared of any wrongdoing.
At that presser, Mack, District Attorney Bob Wilters and members of the Baldwin County Major Crimes Unit who ostensibly investigated Hunady’s actions, presented a carefully curated bit of video showing Victor in the seconds before he was shot. I have no doubt what was selected to show the assembled members of the media was intended to make Victor look as threatening as possible and deserving of being shot.
Wilters followed up the video by letting reporters know the narcotic Ketamine was found in Victor’s system — the inference being that he was on drugs when he got out of the vehicle holding the fanny pack deputies were so certain concealed a deadly weapon that they shot him. What Wilters didn’t tell those reporters is that Victor had been administered Ketamine by paramedics after being shot. That’s information the district attorney must have had if his investigative team was marginally competent. But the gambit worked, as reporters regurgitated events exactly the way Mack and Wilters laid it out. Here’s an example of what’s still on WALA’s web page:
“No gun was found on Victor or in his car, but he had a pair of scissors and investigators said his wrists were bleeding. Investigators also said he suffered no injuries as a result of his car running off the interstate. A toxicology report showed Victor had the controlled substance, Ketamine in his system. Ketamine is a type of anesthetic usually used on animals and has been on the list of banned controlled substances in the US for nearly two decades.
“‘Ketamine is not one of the normal drugs that we see on a regular basis. It is available. I think it’s used be [sic] veterinarians also,’ Baldwin County District Attorney Bob Wilters said.”
There it is — the guy was on drugs and he’d cut himself with scissors and jumped out of the car threatening everyone with something wrapped in cloth. So he got shot. Tough luck.
That’s the power of law enforcement to control the narrative, to control the information in a state where the public’s right to open records isn’t worth a hill of beans.
But you don’t have to take it from some nosy journalists any longer that there’s more to all of this than what Hoss and Wilters would have you believe. A U.S. Federal Court judge has seen the body-camera footage and 911 documents and appears to have come to the same conclusion I have — that Jonathan Victor’s death was far from necessary and could have been avoided entirely.
This wasn’t one of those bang-bang moments like what we saw this past week when an officer shot a teenage girl who was about to stab another during a fight. Hunady was on the scene for 10 minutes. He and other deputies were positioned behind vehicles a safe distance away. Judge Cassady takes issue with the narrative that Victor assumed a “shooter’s stance” after leaving his car.
He wrote that a “reasonable finder of fact could conclude from this video that Victor did not take aggressive action toward Deputy Hunady or anyone else, and that he did not punch out his arms in a shooter stance.” The judge went on to question why no one attempted to use a Taser on Victor or to even let him know he was about to be shot.
“A reasonable jury could conclude, without running afoul of the judicial deference paid to police officers making split-second decisions in dangerous situations, that Deputy Hunady mismanaged those elements and violated Victor’s Fourth Amendment rights by unreasonably using deadly force to subdue him in a situation that posed no imminent threat,” Cassady wrote. He went on to write that Hunady had ample time to make plans for how he would handle the situation, but failed to do so.
As for Mack, the judge smacked down his efforts to obtain immunity because there is no pattern of misconduct on his part. Cassady supported the plaintiff’s claim the sheriff showed a pattern of “deliberate indifference” because there was at that time no crisis intervention training at BCSO. Because circumstances such as this one are so common, Mack’s failure to train his deputies to deal with them properly could demonstrate “deliberate indifference.”
Mack and Hunady are probably quite fortunate this didn’t happen in today’s climate — although Alabama law still has its thumb squarely on law enforcement’s side of the scale when it comes to officer-involved shootings. When you look at what happened to Jonathan Victor, it can’t make anyone feel like there’s actual accountability if you’re shot to death by a Baldwin County deputy. That accountability is left up to the individuals running the show and Mack and Wilters have already shown what kind of show they run.
But it does bring back a small bit of faith in the system that a federal judge sees this needless shooting for what it is.
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