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Judge exonerates officers of excessive force charges in tasing incident, National Guardsman refused to comply

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Sophie Cocke
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

A federal jury found Thursday that three Honolulu police officers did not use excessive force against Sheldon Haleck, a former Hawaii Air National Guardsman who died after a run-in with police on South King Street in front of Iolani Place.

The officers and their city attorneys teared up and hugged one another after the eight-member jury delivered their verdict at the U.S. District Court of Hawaii, just two blocks from where Haleck had stopped breathing on the night of March 16, 2015. The eight-member jury deliberated for two days in the case, in which plaintiff attorneys sought $3 million in damages.

“Although this is no time for a celebration because someone has lost a son and we are very mindful of that … we are nevertheless happy for these officers, who we feel have been vindicated,” said Deputy Corporation Counsel Traci Morita, lead attorney for the defense, following the decision. “And we are thankful for the jury for understanding the very difficult nature of an officer’s job.”

Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard issued a statement saying the court ruling was a “vindication for our officers and the policies of the Honolulu Police Department.”

On its face the facts of the case looked bad for officers Christopher Chung, Samantha Critchlow and Stephen Kardash. They testified to pepper-spraying Haleck about a dozen times and trying to shock him with a Taser three times, all within a span of just five minutes, as they tried to get him to move out of the five-lane street. Haleck’s offense? Disorderly conduct, a petty misdemeanor.

Taser video of the incident shows Haleck screaming on the ground as officers cuffed his wrists and legs. He soon fell motionless and stopped breathing.

Haleck never regained consciousness, despite efforts by the police and emergency responders to revive him. He died the next morning at The Queen’s Medical Center.

However, attorneys for the three officers painted a more nuanced picture of what happened that night during the week-and-a-half trial. The officers acknowledged using their pepper spray multiple times but said that it was because Haleck didn’t seem to be affected by it and they weren’t sure it was always hitting him. The spray usually causes painful burning and difficulty breathing, among other symptoms. But Haleck, who was later determined to be on methamphetamine, seemed unfazed, they said, and kept moving, evading their attempts to grab him. Chung tried to shock him with a Taser, but that too didn’t seem to work.

In video taken by the Taser when it was deployed, a loud clicking sound can be heard, which an expert witness for the defense said meant the two probes didn’t connect to his body and the stun device wasn’t working.

Officers also stressed that while Haleck’s offense wasn’t serious, they feared that he or any one of them could be hit by traffic at any moment. It was dark outside, and they were all dressed in dark clothes. While many cars seemed to have stopped, video shows a city bus passing by them on South King Street.

In closing arguments, Morita argued that ultimately Haleck died because of his methamphetamine use, not the actions of the police. The defense also called expert witnesses who testified that Haleck , a controversial diagnosis that has been cited in dozens of deaths across the country involving struggles with law enforcement.

Eric Seitz, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said he intended to appeal the ruling, and criticized defense attorneys for paying expert witnesses with , formerly known as Taser International. Expert witnesses for the defense cast doubt on whether the Taser shocked Haleck, while testifying in support of the excited-delirium defense.

“Those people had a remarkable influence, I think, on this case, and I think it was literally bankrupt, morally and professionally, to present that kind of testimony and rely upon it,” Seitz told reporters.

Seitz was also critical of Judge Helen Gillmor, who presided over the case, calling her biased in favor of the police.

Asked about the defense’s use of the excited-delirium defense, Seitz said, “Well, that was the testimony that was bought and paid for, and the judge allowed it in despite the fact that it is highly unreliable, highly suspect and has, what we believe, no competent medical justification whatsoever.”

Morita countered that the case dealt with complex issues relating to electricity, the workings of a Taser and the cause of death. “So it was prudent and actually the right thing to do to hire experts that could help the jury and us understand that complex information,” she said.

Morita said that she believed Gillmor was fair and tough on both sides.

Ken Lawson, who teaches criminal law at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law and who sat in during parts of the trial, called the excited- delirium diagnosis “junk science.”

In not settling the case, Lawson said, the Honolulu Police Department was sending a message.

“HPD is trying to make a statement, and that is if our officers had to kill you in subduing you while you’re high on meth, they’re not liable,” he said. “I don’t blame the cops here, I really don’t. I blame the training. I blame the lack of training — because you’re approaching somebody that’s high on meth, they’re physical, you’re trying to subdue them and you’re trying to protect the public. But you don’t know how to do that in a safe fashion. Why don’t you know how to do that in a safe fashion? Because you haven’t trained to do it in a safe fashion.”

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