A federal jury last week awarded 4 cents to the family of a Florida man who was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy in 2014.
Jurors were asked to determine if Gregory Vaughn Hill Jr.’s constitutional rights were violated on Jan. 14, 2014, when St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Newman shot him through the garage door of his Fort Pierce home as Newman and his partner, Deputy Edward Lopez, investigated a loud music complaint against Hill.
Hill, who was black, was found face down in the garage, an unloaded handgun in his back pocket. The deputies said that Hill, who autopsy results showed was heavily intoxicated when he was shot in the head and abdomen, pointed the weapon at them before closing the garage door.
That claim remains in dispute, according to The New York Times. John M. Phillips, the lawyer representing Hill’s family, argued that there was no evidence that Hill pointed the gun at anyone and that the Sheriff’s Office used “unreasonable, negligent and excessive” tactics.
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Jurors were also asked to determine how much, if any, compensation Hill’s three children deserved for the loss of their father. They awarded Hill’s estate $4, $1 to his mother, Viola Bryant, for his funeral expenses and $1 to each of his children.
They determined, however, that Hill, 30, was 99 percent responsible for his own death because of his intoxication, court records show. TCPalm.com reported that Hill’s toxicology results showed his blood alcohol concentration was nearly .40, almost five times the legal limit for driving.
The jury found that St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara was 1 percent liable, according to the court records. That determination reduced the award to pennies.
The jurors found that Newman did not use excessive force against Hill.
In a statement on his department’s Facebook page, Mascara said he was “pleased to see this difficult and tragic incident come to a conclusion.”
“Deputy Newman was placed in a very difficult situation, and like so many fellow law enforcement officers must do every day, he made the best decision he could for the safety of his partner, himself, and the public given the circumstances he faced,” Mascara said. “We appreciate the jury’s time and understanding and wish everyone involved in this case the best as they move forward.”
Phillips told the Times he would have preferred the jury completely clear the Sheriff’s Office than award his clients such meager damages.
“I think they were trying to insult the case,” Phillips told the newspaper. “Why go there with the $1? That was the hurtful part.”
Monique Davis, who was planning to marry Hill less than two months from the day he was killed, said the verdict was “heartbreaking,” and that she still had a lot of unanswered questions.
“I’m going to keep fighting until I get some justice,” Davis told the Times. “That’s the only way I’m going to get peace.”
Phillips said he was seeking a new trial and, if that request was denied, he would appeal the verdict.
The events leading to Hill’s shooting began when a parent in the pickup line at Frances K. Sweet Magnet School, which is across the street from Hill’s home, called police to complain about “obscene, loud music” coming from the house, TCPalm.com reported. Newman and Lopez responded and, after getting no response at the front door, knocked on the garage door.
Mascara said in statements following the incident that as the garage door opened, the deputies saw Hill with a handgun down at his side.
“Deputies ordered (Hill) to drop the gun. Instead of complying with the deputies’ commands, (he) raised the gun toward the deputies as he simultaneously pulled the garage door closed,” Mascara’s statement said, according to TCPalm.com.
That’s when Newman fired, killing Hill, investigators said. The deputies did not immediately realize Hill had been slain and a SWAT team was called in.
Deputies surrounded the home, believing that Hill had “barricaded” himself inside. The SWAT team ultimately used chemical agents and a robot to breach the garage, at which point they found Hill dead, the Times reported.
A GoFundMe page set up for the family following last week’s verdict said that Hill’s daughter, a student at the magnet school across the street, saw the shooting.
Phillips told TCPalm.com in 2016, when the lawsuit was filed, that Hill was spending time in his “man cave” when the deputies showed up.
“We all have our own little getaway time, and because he was drinking beer and listening to Drake, I don’t think that makes him a threat,” Phillips said.