One night in October 2016, Master Deputy Richard Palmer of the Lake County, Florida Sheriff’s Department received a call to proceed to a known meth house in a rural area, after a 9-1-1 caller reported mayhem at the location. Almost there, Palmer saw a woman in a sedan emerging from the lonely road that led to the house in question. She went through a stop sign and stopped in front of the patrol car. Both vehicles’ windows were down, and Palmer ordered her to pull over. Instead, she pulled away. Palmer followed, and less than a hundred yards down the road, she pulled into a yard. Palmer pulled in behind her.
As he opened the patrol car door, the woman was already emerging from her car and Palmer saw her put what appeared to be an automatic pistol in the left front pocket of her hoodie. He drew his issue Glock and shouted at her to stop, but instead she came toward him rapidly with her hands raised. But then her hands suddenly dropped, going toward the pocket with the gun, and Palmer did as he was trained: he raised his service pistol from low ready and fired. The woman crumpled as the .40 caliber Gold Dot bullet struck her in the hip.
Palmer cautiously approached, holstered his weapon, grabbed her left hand to stabilize it and reached his other hand into the left pocket. Instead of a gun, he found an iPhone. Its rectangular black shape, in the poor light, had appeared to be a small semi-auto pistol. Moreover, the dashcam of his patrol car showed she had raised her hands again before the bullet hit her, but firing from a line of sight Isosceles stance as trained, his hands and gun had blocked his view of her hands and he never saw that movement.
It was a classic example of what homicide investigators call a furtive movement shooting. Four intensive investigations – by his own department’s Internal Affairs unit, then the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, then the State’s Attorney’s Office, and finally a Grand Jury – all saw the truth and exonerated Palmer: his actions had been objectively reasonable under the unusual circumstances, and were well within the guidance of SCOTUS’ guiding decision on police use of force in Graham v. Connor. But it wasn’t enough for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, which filed charges and indicted Palmer in 2019. An already backlogged Federal Court was logjammed further by the Covid pandemic, and the case didn’t come to trial until last week.
The prosecution presented it as an unarmed woman maliciously shot with her hands up by a deputy who was angry because she took twenty seconds to pull over as instructed. Palmer’s defense team, led by the brilliant lawyer Alan Diamond, brought me in as expert witness. Under the Rules we couldn’t tell the jury that the woman had a long history of felonies and was driving a stolen car, because those facts weren’t known to the deputy at the time of the shooting. We WERE able to dissect the timeline of the shooting and show how any reasonable officer in Palmer’s position, seeing what he saw, would have done what he did. As I told the jury, it wasn’t a victim and a villain, it was an unfortunate confluence of circumstances that made victims of both parties. The jury got it. On Friday Palmer, who could have been sentenced to twenty years in the penitentiary if he had been convicted, was completely exonerated by the jury with a Not Guilty verdict.
That’s worth remembering the next time some naïve soul tells you, “A good shoot is a good shoot.” Diamond and his team were up against the DOJ, with its annual $35.3 billion budget, and a prosecution team that had apparently never tried to reconstruct the timeline from the available evidence. I congratulate Diamond on his splendid defense of the wrongfully accused officer, and am grateful to have had some part in his exoneration. I wish to publicly thank my colleague Steve Denney, who did a brilliant job running two days of my MAG-80 class at the magnificent Boondocks Firearms Training Academy in Mississippi for the two days I had to be at the trial in Tampa, and also my techno-savvy friend Herman Gunter IV. Herman applied a Coach’s Eye app to the dashcam video, allowing me to show the jury that the key action had taken place in about 1.32 seconds. The Government had more than 173 million of those seconds to assemble their case, and still had only the weak “what if” of their theory against the defense’s solid “what is” of the facts in evidence and the well-known elements of dynamics of violent encounters.