Douglas Brown et al. v. City of Bridgeport et al.: In a case involving an unusual set of circumstances, including a misidentified suspect, a Bridgeport police officer who shot an unarmed man in the back following a chase was cleared of wrongdoing by a jury after a month-long trial.
On Jan. 31, 2008, Bridgeport police were tipped off by an anonymous caller that Justin Ellerbe, wanted on felony warrants in South Carolina, was at a particular residence in Bridgeport. The caller also told police that Ellerbe was carrying a large handgun with ammunition that could pierce bulletproof armor.
Police, including Bridgeport Sgt. Brian Fitzgerald (who is now a lieutenant), arrived at the residence late that afternoon and were unable to locate the suspect. Officers returned to other duties, including Fitzgerald, who went to direct traffic at a nearby construction site.
But undercover officers stayed behind. Later that evening, they saw a man fitting the description of the suspect getting into a sport utility vehicle matching the one described by the tipster. The SUV drove off and undercover officers began tailing it.
“At this point, everyone is under the belief that this is the suspect from South Carolina with a very dangerous handgun,” said Betsy Edwards, associate city counsel for Bridgeport.
Fitzgerald, while at the construction site, noticed the SUV drive by and jumped into his cruiser. A chase ensued and the SUV crashed through a chain-link fence at a playground near Success Village housing complex before running head-on into a tree.
According to Edwards, the driver of the SUV got out of the vehicle and started approaching Sgt. Fitzgerald yelling, “Get the f— away from me.” Edwards said the man appeared to be holding something and pointing something at the officer, which Fitzgerald believed was a handgun. The officer then heard shots.
Believing the suspect was shooting at him, Sgt. Fitzgerald fired several shots in response and followed the man into an alley. The suspect stopped and Fitzgerald thought he was reaching for a weapon in his pocket. The officer fired another round.
As it turned out, the object the suspect was holding was a BlackBerry phone. Also, police discovered that the suspect was not Ellerbe. Instead it was 33-year-old Frederick McAllister, a cousin of Ellerbe’s who also previously lived in South Carolina before moving to the Bridgeport area a couple years before.
McAllister died from his wounds about 20 minutes after being shot, said Edwards.
She said the police investigation revealed that McAllister was not the man who had shot at Sgt. Fitzgerald. Instead it was a passenger in the SUV with McAllister, a person who fled the scene and whose identity is still unknown, said Edwards.
“Sgt. Fitzgerald shot an unarmed man in the back and killed him,” said the lawyer for the man’s family, Antonio Ponvert III, of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder in Bridgeport. “And the defendants admitted that the man Fitzgerald shot was not the felon that they were searching for. So the city has acknowledged the fact that an innocent man was killed. [But] the city has never taken responsibility for that death.”
Ponvert filed a wrongful death lawsuit on the family’s behalf alleging that Sgt. Fitzgerald and the city of Bridgeport were negligent and reckless in causing McAllister’s death. The lawsuit also accused the city of failure to supervise.
Ponvert said he was troubled that the police department thought McAllister resembled his cousin, Ellerbe. “The only characteristic McAllister and the wanted felon shared was that they had black skin,” said Ponvert. “McAllister was three inches shorter and 69 pounds heavier than the felon [police] were looking for. [This could have] just as easily resulted in the death of any one of the tens of thousands of black men who live in the city.”
Edwards, however, said that McAllister wasn’t such an innocent man. Besides leading officers on a chase, he, too, was wanted for dealing drugs. Edwards said crack cocaine and a handgun were found in the SUV. “The fact that it was the wrong person was irrelevant,” said Edwards. “It’s what he did…not who he was.”
After an attempt to mediate a settlement failed, the case proceeded to trial with testimony lasting four weeks before Bridgeport Superior Court Judge Dale Radcliffe. The defense was offering only to cover the plaintiffs’ litigation costs. Ponvert later asked the jury for $20 million.
“We were in two completely different universes in this case,” said Edwards.
In total, 25 witnesses testified, including 16 police officers who were called by the plaintiffs. Edwards said she presented four expert witnesses and Fitzgerald.
She said experts testified as to what an officer perceives in a certain situation and how he or she should respond. She said the office made the right decision to fire at McAllister. “You don’t wait for a suspect to fire at you. You have to shoot first,” said Edwards.
Edwards said Ponvert was unable to present any witness who claimed Fitzgerald did anything wrong. Edwards said Fitzgerald, a 16-year veteran of the Bridgeport force, made “a good witness.”
“He’s one of our best,” Edwards said, noting that he’s now one of only 20 lieutenants on the city’s 450-officer force.
Edwards said the plaintiffs tried to “muddy up” the case by focusing on things that happened before and after the shooting “to make the city look incompetent in ways that had nothing to do with the shooting.”
The jury deliberated for 3 ½ days before rendering a defense verdict. Specifically, the first question the jurors had to answer was whether the defendants were negligent. Ponvert said the jurors said “yes.” The next question was whether they believe that negligence caused McAllister’s death. To that question, the jurors said “no.”
Ponvert said the fact that the jury answered “yes” to the question of negligence indicates that it’s “inaccurate” for the defendants to claim they were vindicated by the jury. “We are filing a motion to set aside the verdict because it is manifestly against the weight of the evidence and we will be filing an appeal if the verdict is not set aside,” said Ponvert.
Ponvert, who is assisted in the case by fellow Koskoff attorney Preston Tisdale, said McAllister’s family was “absolutely devastated” by the verdict. He said the family came up from Florence, S.C. to watch the trial. “There’s no way to describe this experience for them other than it’s a surreal nightmare,” said Ponvert.
Edwards, meanwhile, said she spoke with the jurors for about an hour after the trial and they said, given all that happened, they were not bothered that the wrong suspect had been shot.
Edwards noted that just recently several more Bridgeport officers were shot at. “These officers have a dangerous and difficult job,” said Edwards. “We think it’s important to take cases like this all the way [to trial] because they’re just trying to protect themselves and protect us.”•