WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A Florida judge declared a mistrial Wednesday in a lawsuit over the killing of an unarmed nurseryman by a sheriff's deputy after jurors said they could not reach a unanimous verdict.
The five-man, four-woman panel had deliberated about 14 hours over three days in the death of Seth Adams at the hands of Palm Beach County Sgt. Michael Custer. Jurors told the court they had deadlocked 7-2 in favour of Adams' parents, Dick and Lydia Adams, who were seeking between $10 million and $20 million for their 24-year-old son's death five years ago.
Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley in West Palm Beach told the jurors, "Sometimes you can't get a unanimous verdict on a difficult case, even after the attorneys have marshalled all the evidence." He told them they could not have been more conscientious and diligent. The jurors declined to comment as they left the courthouse after the month-long trial.
Adams' parents said that while they were disappointed no verdict was reached, they were buoyed by the vote and promised to retry the lawsuit. They say the vote shows Custer's depiction of their son as an obscene drunk who attacked him without provocation is false.
"We wanted an honest, fair judgement," Lydia Adams said. "This isn't just us as parents. We have known all along that (the sheriff's office) was egregious in their investigation and their defamation of our child who did not deserve to be killed. We are not done. We are not done."
Custer and his attorneys had no comment. He was cleared criminally after an investigation that was blasted as "slipshod" by Hurley. The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office said in a statement Wednesday evening that it was disappointing that the jury could not reach a verdict. "The unfortunate tragic encounter on May 16, 2012, resulted in Sgt. Custer's use of deadly force when he reasonably believed his own life was in jeopardy," the statement said.
It was the second time in 13 months the sheriff's office had been in federal trial over a shooting. In February 2016, a jury awarded $22 million to young black man left paralyzed after a deputy mistook his cellphone for a gun and shot him. That verdict is being appealed. The agency also recently settled three other lawsuits involving questionable shootings, agreeing to pay $2.7 million combined.
There was no dispute that Custer shot Adams on May 16, 2012, in the parking lot of the One Stop Garden Shop, the nursery where Adams lived and worked with his brother and sister-in-law.
Working in plainclothes, Custer had parked his unmarked SUV in the lot at about 11 p.m. so he could watch a nearby road. He was supervising surveillance on a gang of ATM thieves, all white men in their 20s like Adams.
When Adams arrived home from a bar, he pulled his small Ford pickup up about 15 feet from Custer's SUV. Tests conducted after the shooting showed his blood-alcohol content at 0.13, over Florida's 0.08 limit for driving. The family disputes that, saying his blood loss may have skewed the results. Adams had no criminal history and witnesses at the bar said Adams had been in a good mood when he left 10 minutes before the shooting.
Custer, who is white, testified that the 6-foot-4 Adams immediately began cursing him, making him think he might be a member of the gang sent to distract him. He said that after they both got out of their vehicles, Adams rushed toward him and grabbed him by the throat. Custer, who is 5-foot-8, said he fought off Adams, pulled his gun and ordered Adams to the ground. Instead, he said Adams ran back to his truck's cab.
Custer said he kicked the door closed on Adams, pinning him, but he still began rummaging through the cab as if he were retrieving a weapon. He said he grabbed Adams by the neck and warned him he was about to be shot. He said when Adams spun toward him and yelled another obscenity, he fired four shots, hitting Adams in the right forearm and twice in the chest. Adams stumbled into the nursery before collapsing. He died about two hours later during surgery.
The Adamses' attorneys had argued the evidence disproved Custer's testimony, saying it showed Adams was shot behind the truck and that there was no immediate confrontation between the two. The bullet that tore through his forearm was found behind the truck, not inside the cab where it should have been if Custer's story were true, they argued. The blood trail also appeared to begin behind the truck.
Also, a member of Custer's surveillance team had said he drove past the parking lot about a minute before the shooting and saw both men outside their vehicles. Detective Kevin Drummond testified Adams was facing into the nursery and then turned his head toward Custer as if in response to something the sergeant said. He said he heard no yelling and saw nothing that made him think Custer was endangered, so he didn't stop.
Terry Spencer, The Associated Press