Glenn Harris v. Johnmichael O’Hare, Anthony Pia and City of Hartford: A federal jury in Hartford recently ruled in favor of two police officers who had been sued for allegedly shooting a dog in front of a 12-year-old girl.
In a case that ultimately came down to whose story the jury believed, Glenn Harris sued the officers and the City of Hartford on behalf of his young daughter, who claims the cops fired after she said, “Don’t shoot my dog.” Lawyers for the officers tell a much different story; they say the cops killed the dog when it attacked them and that the young girl did not witness the shooting.
The bizarre chain of events took place on Dec. 20, 2006 in Hartford’s dangerous North End. According to the lawyer for the officers and the city of Hartford, Thomas Gerarde, of Howd & Ludorf in Hartford, Officer Johnmichael O’Hare and Detective Anthony Pia were assigned to the North End Conditions Unit.
Gerarde described the North End as the “most dangerous section of the city” because of its gang problems.
While on patrol, the two officers spotted a “high-level gang leader” who had recently gotten out of prison and saw him drop something. The officers went over to pick it up and noticed it was heroin packaged for street sale. They took the man into custody.
In an attempt to negotiate some leniency, the man told the officers, “I can get you two [illegal] guns,” said Gerarde. The suspect told the officers that there were two guns in an abandoned Nissan Maxima in the backyard of an Enfield Street residence, which is where the plaintiff and his daughter live.
The officers told the suspect they could not promise him anything, but that they would make note in their arrest report that he helped get two guns off the streets. Gerarde noted that it’s common practice among suspects to try to use such information as leverage.
A sergeant stayed with the suspect while O’Hare and Pia headed over to Enfield Street. After arrving at the house, the officers went around to the backyard looking for the car. When they got to the rear corner of the yard, there was a 120-pound St. Bernard named Seven making eye contact with the officers and then charging at them, the defense claimed. The officers said they ran away as fast as they could.
Detective Pia was reportedly able to hop a fence. However, Officer O’Hare, who was closer to the dog initially, claimed he knew the dog was about to catch him. He made a quick decision to turn around and fire three shots as the dog lunged at him, the third shot being the kill shot, Gerarde said.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the sergeant waiting with the gang leader heard the shots. He worried that the suspect had lured the officers into an ambush and hurried to the scene, leaving the suspect behind. After discovering the real reason for the gunshots, the sergeant returned to where the suspect had been, but he was gone. Gerarde noted that officers later got a warrant and arrested the man on drug charges.
The plaintiff, Harris, through his lawyer, Jon Schoenhorn, of Schoenhorn & Associates in Hartford, dispute the officers’ account. According to the complaint, filed in October 2008, the officers entered the fenced-in backyard without a warrant. The complaint said the young girl was playing with the family dog, which barked and began approaching the officers.
The plaintiffs say the two officers then turned and ran towards the front of the house, at which point Officer O’Hare turned and shot the dog, wounding him and causing him to fall to the ground. The plaintiffs further claim that O’Hare then stood over the dog and as the girl came over screaming for him not to shoot her dog, fired a shot in the dog’s temple, killing him.
The lawsuit alleged illegal search and seizure, other constitutional violations for entering the property without a warrant, and intentional infliction of emotional distress for killing the dog in front of the girl. The girl needed to seek counseling and had nightmares over the incident, the plaintiffs alleged.
The case went to trial in U.S. District Court before Judge Robert Chatigny in May. Proceedings lasted five full days and included testimony from both the girl and her father, as well as a psychiatrist and a veterinarian who conducted an autopsy on Seven.
Harris, the father, who wasn’t home at the time the officers arrived, claimed his daughter was inconsolable after the shooting.
“There were three ‘Beware of Dog’ signs on the house, but the owner testified that the dogs were friendly and playful and he never heard them bark,” said Gerarde, noting that the plaintiffs owned another dog that wasn’t outside that night.
“Had [Seven] caught up to the officer,” Gerarde continued, describing Harris’ testimony “he would’ve jumped up and tried to lick him. I found that completely unbelievable but that’s how he testified.”
In Gerarde’s view, a key piece of evidence came from the forensic examination of how the dog was shot. He said the kill shot bullet entered through the animal’s forehead, passed through the brain and came out the back of the head, before coming to rest in the neck tissue.
He said if the dog was lying on the ground defenseless, and shot in cold blood in the temple with the officer standing over him, the bullet would not have taken that path. The bullet’s route, he argued, backs the officer’s testimony that he shot the dog as it was lunging at him.
The jury apparently agreed, and after deliberating for about seven hours rendered a defense verdict late last month. “It completely came down to which story was going to be believed,” said Gerarde.
Schoenhorn said he plans to challenge the verdict. “This is the first time, I think ever in my career, I’ve had sufficient [grounds] to ask for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict,” said Schoenhorn. “There’s no basis in the evidence or the law for this [jury's] verdict.”
Schoenhorn said he did not want to discuss the case further until he files the motion sometime before the July 2 deadline.•