Juror: Jury In Tased Teen Case Wasn’t Told Why They Couldn’t Hold City Of Maryville Liable
Jurors who declined to find two police officers liable for tasing a teen with autism were willing to consider holding the city of Maryville, Missouri, liable – but the judge took that decision out of their hands.
One of the jurors who served on the seven-member federal jury told KCUR this week that the jury was never told why the city was removed from the case.
“That’s where we were going to be able to do something – the city of Maryville and how they trained their officers,” the juror, Brian Rhoades, said. “But they took it away from us. And we did send a message to the judge if we could know why that was taken off the table, but they couldn’t answer that question for us.”
Following a two-day trial and 10 hours of deliberations, the jury of four men and three women earlier this month ruled in favor of the two remaining defendants in the case, Maryville police officer Seth Rucker and Nodaway County Sheriff’s Deputy Austin Hann.
The case was brought in 2017 by Ernest J. Kramer and Ella I. Kramer, the parents and legal guardians of Christopher Kramer, who was 18 when he was tased and clubbed in May 2014. Their attorney, Arthur Benson, had asked the jury to award them $2 million.
Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. did not explain to the jury why he took the city off the table. But it appears he was following a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case finding that a city can be held liable for violating someone’s civil rights only if its employees’ actions implemented official city policy.
Rhoades said jurors never seriously considered finding against the officers because the jurors believed they acted based on the best information they had. That information turned out to be partial and possibly misleading.
The jury’s verdict puzzled some observers, who thought that Christopher Kramer should never have been detained in the first place, let alone tased multiple times after he was tackled and struggled with officers.
“It didn’t have to go that way, is what I thought,” said Sara Prince, an upper school learning specialist at The Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City and the mother of a son with autism. “Once you start considering that individual as just a typical member of the neuro-typical population, you’re already evaluating it inappropriately.”
Skylar Bellinger, a psychologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center who deals with autism, called the case “very concerning” and “heartbreaking.”
“The patients that we work with, a lot of them would really struggle in that situation and would react in very similar ways,” she said. “And so it’s important to get some better training for law enforcement on de-escalation techniques and how to respond in situations like that.
“Because we know that kids with autism have communication deficits and they don’t always necessarily either understand what’s being said to them or understand how to communicate something back.”
Kramer was running home from Maryville High School and had stopped to tie his shoe on what turned out to be the lawn of a Missouri state trooper. The trooper, Jim Farmer, called the Maryville Police Department, saying that someone suspicious had approached the front of his house.
A dispatcher broadcast a description of Kramer, who, when police later discovered him walking down a street, took off running. After a foot chase, police tackled the teen, who resisted being subdued while wailing that he wanted to go home.
Rhoades said that jurors quickly decided there was probable cause to detain Kramer because a fellow police officer had called in the report of a suspicious person and because Kramer had fled upon seeing the police.
“We felt that at that given moment, all they knew was that something happened at another police officer's house,” Rhoades said. “They found the person matched the description and he saw the police officers and ran. So that's where we felt that … there was a reasonable suspicion that they could detain him.”
Rhoades said the jurors spent most of their time discussing whether the police should have recognized that Kramer had autism and used excessive force to subdue him.
“Clearly he was resisting arrest and we did not feel that they could tell at that time that he was autistic versus someone who may be under the influence of a substance or anything like that,” Rhoades said. “And once the officers got the handcuffs on him, all of it stopped. If they had continued to do something, then obviously that would have tipped the scale.”
Also factoring into the jury’s decision, he said, was that Kramer appeared to suffer no long-term ill effects. He went to the school prom the next day and did not seek therapy.
Rhoades said the jurors felt there was plenty of blame to go around: Farmer, for calling the police in the first place; the dispatcher, for not making it clear there was no emergency; Kramer, for resisting arrest; and even Kramer’s parents, for allowing him to wander far from home unattended after he’d been involved in an incident the week before.
“We felt that there was fault across the board,” Rhoades said. “Trooper Farmer probably didn’t need to call the police to begin with if he was just tying his shoe.”
Reached by phone in Maryville, Ernest Kramer, the teen’s father, declined to comment on the advice of Benson, the family’s attorney. Benson likewise declined to comment.
Rhoades said jurors might have been inclined to find against the city because they believed the officers hadn’t been properly trained to deal with the situation.
“I personally felt that maybe if the city was still on the table that maybe the jury could gave come to a different conclusion against the city for its training of the officers,” he said.
Sara Prince, the learning specialist at Pembroke, agreed the police handled the situation poorly.
“Because there's a way of managing these populations so that when you come across an individual with this kind of disability, there's a specific way to deescalate rather than to accelerate the disaster,” Prince said. “And anybody who knows this kind of individual knows that.”
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.