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Honolulu police officers did not use excessive force in trying to arrest a man the night before he died in 2015, a federal jury concluded Thursday.
The eight-member jury reached its verdict after more than two weeks of arguments were laid out in the trial surrounding Sheldon Haleck’s March 2015 death after his encounter with police.
Police officers deployed a Taser three times on Haleck, a former military policeman, and pepper sprayed him more than a dozen times in an attempt to get him off of the roadway in front of Iolani Palace.
Haleck died the next day at the hospital, and his uncle, Gulstan Silva, filed a civil rights lawsuit in October 2015 against the city and three of its police officers who were at the scene, Christopher Chung, Samantha Critchlow and Stephen Kardash. The city was dismissed from the suit in 2017.
Attorneys for Silva asked for $3 million, saying Haleck’s death was caused by police officers’ excessive use of force. The amount included about $800,000 in lost earnings and $51,000 in hospital bills.
When the courtroom manager announced the verdict, the defendants embraced each other, their counsel and family members. Critchlow broke into tears and repeatedly said, “Thank you.”
“Although this is no time for celebration because someone has lost a son, and we’re very mindful of that and we have been mindful of that throughout this entire trial, we are nevertheless happy for these officers who we feel have been vindicated,” Deputy Corporation Counsel Traci Morita said to the media.
She would not make her clients available for interviews, saying, “they have been through a lot.”
Eric Seitz, the plaintiff’s lead attorney, said he was disappointed, but not surprised based on his observations of how the trial went down.
“I’m afraid it sends a horrible message to police officers that they can do whatever they want to do out there on the street without any concern about the consequences to lives,” Seitz said. “And that they’re not going to be held accountable.”
Seitz said he planned to appeal the verdict.
Over the course of the trial, the city’s civil attorneys tried to convince the jury that the Taser deployment was not responsible for Haleck’s death, which they said was instead caused by a drug-induced condition called “excited delirium.”
The plaintiff’s attorneys made it sound like a “made-up thing” by telling jurors that it is not a medical diagnosis recognized by medical organizations, Morita said during her closing argument Tuesday. “It’s a real state.”
The city hired three expert witnesses with ties to the Taser company, Axon Enterprises Inc., to bolster their argument.
“Why did we call people at Taser?” Morita said. “Because a Taser was used.”
Their experts, who the attorney said was best qualified to explain complex scientific issues, testified that Tasers do not cause electrocution, and that Haleck’s heart rhythm before he died was not consistent with electrocution.
A Reuters report in 2017 said the Taser company routinely reached out to municipalities and police departments whenever their weapon would be involved in in-custody deaths. When Civil Beat asked her who reached out first in this case, Morita said she did.
Seitz, the plaintiff’s attorney, repeatedly criticized the city’s use of hired experts, saying they are biased. “I think it was literally bankrupt, morally and professionally, to present that kind of testimony and rely upon it.”
He also criticized U.S. District Court Judge Helen Gillmor for what he said was “the worst trial I’ve ever sat through in terms of the performance of the judge.”
Seitz said Gillmor admitted untested evidence and cut off his team’s cross-examinations at critical times.
“I think, basically, she felt that this was a justifiable action by the police,” he said.
Morita disagreed that Gillmor was biased, saying the judge was tough on both sides.
“If the verdict had come out in his favor, he would have been singing the praises of the judge and the jury,” Morita said of Seitz.
The verdict “is a vindication for our officers and the policies of the Honolulu Police Department,” Police Chief Susan Ballard said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
“This case illustrates the complex interactions and challenges facing our community and our officers today,” Ballard said.
Seitz said he and his team did not have high hopes that they would win, given the circumstances.
“Frankly even if we’d gotten a fair hearing it’s almost impossible to win these cases until people stand up and demand more of police than the kind of conduct that was exhibited in this case,” Seitz said.
The plaintiff’s attorneys argued during trial that the force was excessive given that Haleck was suspected of disorderly conduct, which is a misdemeanor, no one else got hurt, and that the whole encounter lasted less than five minutes.
Some of the most important legal battles in the trial happened out of the jury’s line of sight, through motions in which the lawyers use to try to limit or prevent certain evidence from being presented.
Twenty such motions were filed for this trial, 14 of which came from the defendants.
Among the defense’s motions was to block William Haleck, the father of the deceased, from testifying about his son’s wounds from the encounter and how they could be related to being hit by a Taser, based on his own law enforcement experience.
The elder Haleck is a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent and American Samoa commissioner of public safety.
The city’s attorneys argued that he should not be considered an expert witness in regards to what caused his son’s death, nor should he testify as a lay witness and talk about his personal observations. Gillmor agreed with them.
“There is no evidence that the Decedent’s father was present at the scene of the incident or personally observed a Taser probe cause any specific marks on the Decedent’s body,” Gillmor wrote in her order.
The judge approved another defense motion to prohibit words like “murder” from being used.
The plaintiff’s attorneys tried to block Dr. Stacey Hail — an emergency room physician who co-authored a study with a Taser director saying Tasers do not cause cardiac arrest — from testifying that excited delirium caused Haleck’s death.
Gillmor denied that motion.
“The district court is not tasked with deciding whether the expert is right or wrong, just whether the testimony has substance such that it would be helpful to the jury,” Gillmor said in her order on the motion.
Further, the judge wrote, other courts have deemed excited delirium to be “sufficiently reliable and admissible.”
The plaintiff’s attorneys also tried to block Mark Kroll, the Taser director who co-authored the study with Hail, from testifying, saying he’s biased.
Gillmor rejected that motion.
Kroll testified that he is paid an annual salary of $300,000 in his director position and that he owns more than $1 million in stock in Axon Enterprises.
William and Verdell Haleck spent the past two weeks sitting on a wooden bench outside the federal courtroom while lawyers inside debated what caused their son’s death.
They couldn’t go in until the very last day of arguments, because both of them were listed as witnesses in the case.
Seitz tried to get Verdell Haleck taken off that list, so at least one of them could be in the courtroom, but the city’s attorneys objected, saying they intended to call her. They never did.
The parents got to hear the closing arguments, though, sitting with other family members, including Sheldon Haleck’s wife, Jessica Haleck, and their son, Jeremiah. The police officers’ families were also in the courtroom.
But William and Verdell Haleck did not make it back to court Thursday in time for the announcement of the verdict.
Reached by phone, the parents said they were disappointed.
“We just feel that we have been robbed of our son,” William Haleck said. He said he was aware that his son was on drugs and acting disorderly, but said that didn’t mean he had to die.
Things could have been done differently, and “everybody could have walked away,” he said.
Civil Beat reporter Nick Grube contributed to this report.
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