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Court Allows Suit to Proceed in Fatal Shooting by Police

Litigation: The appeals panel cites inconsistencies in accounts of the 1999 Claremont incident.

April 05, 2002|TIPTON BLISH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An appeals court has cleared the way for a civil suit to proceed against two Claremont police officers who killed an 18-year-old man three years ago.

Tracy Lee sued the city and the officers who shot her son, Irvin Landrum Jr., during a traffic stop. The mother of one of Landrum's two daughters joined in the wrongful-death suit.

In a ruling made public Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found enough inconsistencies in the case to send it to trial.

"The day of reckoning is upon us," said J. Anthony Willoughby, Lee's attorney.

Landrum's shooting has generated controversy in the city for years. Some of those who had protested celebrated Thursday's news.

"This is the one we have been waiting for," said Halford Fairchild, who led protests for years in front of City Hall and helped organize the Irvin Landrum Jr. Justice Organizing Committee.

The attorney for the two officers said he would recommend that they appeal the decision and take the matter to the full 9th Circuit panel.

Landrum was shot early on the morning of Jan. 11, 1999, after Officers Hany Hanna and Kent Jacks pulled him over for allegedly speeding.

During the stop, officers said, Landrum pulled a gun. They shot him three times, and he died six days later.

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Shooting Ignites Charges of Bias

His death, subsequent inconsistencies in the officers' stories and the discovery that a gun found next to Landrum had once belonged to a retired Ontario police chief fueled furious protests. That Landrum was African American heightened tension in the city and led to charges that its police officers are biased.

Hanna said that Landrum had fired at him and that he had seen a muzzle flash. But forensic reports found that the gun had not been fired.

The officers argued, through their attorney, that under the stress of the moment Hanna misconstrued what happened.

"In his mind, under the stresses of the incident, he saw a muzzle flash," said Eugene Ramirez, an attorney representing the city and the officers. "We believe it was a justifiable shooting."

That inconsistency and others, the judges said, "could lead a reasonable fact finder to question the officers' accounts of the incident."

They also cited the fact that Landrum had gunpowder on his hands, although the gun hadn't been fired and had no fingerprints on it.

There also are discrepancies between the accounts given by the officers. Hanna, for example, said Jacks called out a warning that Landrum had a gun. Jacks' account did not include that warning.

Protesters have said the officers tried to cover up the shooting.

"The officers lied," Fairchild said. "Not only did they lie initially, but they lied in their request for summary judgment. We know they lied about the muzzle flash. We know they lied about the gunshot."

Mayor Paul Held said the city has left the matter with the attorneys and the city's insurance agency, which is responsible for the case.

Any decision to try to settle the case before it goes to trial is not the city's to make, he said.

"The city's position is that we have now received several reports from independent investigators, and there is not a basis for finding that the officers acted inappropriately despite the fact that the outcome was so tragic," he said.

The officers were cleared of wrongdoing by a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department investigation and by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

Lee, who marked what would have been her son's 22nd birthday last week, said, "I am looking forward to moving on and having some closure. But it has been three years now, and I don't hurt any less than I did on that day."

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