WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — An attorney representing the parents of an unarmed man killed by a sheriff's sergeant told a federal jury Tuesday that the blood, ballistic and photographic evidence will show the sergeant lied about what caused the shooting.
Attorney Wallace McCall also said during opening statements of Seth Adams' family's lawsuit against Sgt. Michael Custer and the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office that sheriff's administrators failed to do a fair investigation of the May 16, 2012, shooting and perhaps colluded to destroy evidence. The shooting happened just before midnight as Adams returned from a bar to his garden shop, where he lived on the property with his brother and sister-in-law.
"Seth Adams was not killed in the way Sgt. Custer says he was," McCall said. He told the jury the family is seeking "a multi-million dollar" verdict.
Summer Barranco, the attorney representing Custer and the sheriff's office, told the five-man, four-woman jury that Custer cannot be expected to remember precisely what happened as he fought for his life and to keep an open mind about the shooting until all the evidence is presented. Custer, then a 15-year sheriff's office veteran, was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by both the sheriff's office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Both sides agree that Custer, wearing civilian clothing, pulled into the nursery parking lot about 11 p.m. He parked his unmarked black Ford SUV, but left the motor running and turned off the lights. He was supervising a team trying to capture a gang of ATM thieves, all of them white males in their 20s, like Adams. Barranco said that while Adams had no involvement with that gang, Custer, who is also white, had no way of knowing that or that Adams lived on the property when he arrived 40 minutes later.
Custer is expected to testify Adams began yelling profanities at him "as loud as a person could" and demanded to know who he was without identifying himself as a resident. Custer told investigators he identified himself as a sheriff's deputy, but Adams again cursed him, said he had no right to be there and started walking quickly toward him.
Custer, who is 5-foot-8, said he radioed for help and warned Adams, who was 6-foot-4, he would be shot if he advanced.
He said Adams grabbed him by the throat, but he broke free and punched Adams in the chest. Then he pointed his Glock .40-caliber handgun at Adams and ordered him to the ground. "This went from 0 to 60 in milliseconds," Barranco told jurors.
Custer has said Adams went into his truck as if retrieving a weapon. He kicked the truck's door shut and grabbed Adams around the neck, warning he would be shot if he didn't comply, but Adams kept fishing around. He said he fired four shots after Adams spun toward him, hitting Adams twice in the chest and once in the forearm. Adams died two hours later at the hospital.
McCall told the jury Custer's story doesn't match the evidence. He said Palm Beach Sheriff's Agent Kevin Drummond, a surveillance team member, told investigators he drove past the nursery and saw Custer exiting his SUV and Adams standing motionless near his truck about a minute before the shooting. He didn't think Adams posed a threat or notice any screaming, so he didn't stop.
The attorney also said an officer radioed that he heard shots fired before Custer radioed for help. Custer's neck also had no redness or bruising and gunpowder burns to Adams' forearm, ballistics evidence and a blood trail indicate Custer's shots were fired 12 feet from Adams' truck, the attorney said.
He also said that a sheriff's office lieutenant told a crime scene investigator that night not to confiscate Custer's cellphone. After the family demanded it be preserved two weeks later so they could examine any text messages Custer sent or received before or after the shooting, the sheriff's office lost it after one administrator emailed another it was time to launch his "evil plan." McCall also said detectives failed to investigate evidence that a third car may have been in the parking lot during the shooting or just before and that DNA evidence from an unknown person was found on Custer's pants near the zipper and belt buckle. Custer had no previous complaints of brutality or violence in his personnel file.
This is the second time in a year the sheriff's office is in federal court defending itself in the shooting of an unarmed man. Last February, a federal jury awarded Dontrell Stephens $22 million after finding that Sgt. Adams Lin unjustifiably shot him when he mistook Stephens' cellphone for a gun. The shooting paralyzed Stephens.
The agency also settled at least three other lawsuits in the last year over questionable shootings, totaling $2.7 million.
The Adams trial is expected to last four weeks.