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Jury awards $11.5 million to family of man fatally shot by St. Paul officers

Mara Gottfried

Aug 1, 2023

Jurors awarded $11.5 million on Tuesday to the family of a man fatally shot by two St. Paul police officers in 2017, a record-setting amount in the city.

On Monday, the jurors found that officer Nathaniel Younce, who fired just before officer Mikko Norman, violated Cordale Handy’s constitutional rights by using excessive force and that he wrongfully caused Handy’s death. They did not find Norman civilly liable.

Handy’s mother, Kimberly Handy-Jones, filed a federal lawsuit, which went to trial last week and concluded Tuesday. The jury decided on $10 million in compensatory damages and $1.5 million in punitive damages. Punitive damages are intended to send a message to “prevent this from happening again,” said Kevin O’Connor, one of Handy-Jones’ attorneys.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said Tuesday that his “heartfelt condolences go out to Mr. Handy’s family and friends for their devastating loss.”

“I am, at the same time, surprised by both the finding of liability and the magnitude of damages awarded by the jury in this case,” he said in a statement. “Our officers responded to a chaotic and dangerous scene centered around a person who, by all accounts, was acting erratically and had already fired 16 shots (in an apartment) before police arrived.​ I have always spoken clearly about the high standard to which I hold our police officers. In reviewing the details of this case, I simply cannot conclude that those involved had other reasonable options to immediately resolve this escalating crisis and prevent further loss of life without force.​“

The lawsuit named the city of St. Paul and the officers and, with the jury’s verdict, the city will be on the hook to pay the family, Handy-Jones’ attorneys said. The city is reviewing the verdict and considering options, including post-trial motions and appeal, said Kamal Baker, Carter’s spokesman.

St. Paul is self-insured for tort liability and any payments come out of the city’s budget. The city has a statutory duty to defend and indemnify its employees for damages if the employee was acting within the performance of their duties, Baker said.

Attorney: ‘Significant victory’
The officers were not criminally charged in the shooting, but Monday’s verdict will prompt another look at the case, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the agency that originally investigated and presented findings to prosecutors.

Younce testified that he shot Handy because the 29-year-old was pointing a gun at Norman, who was his police partner.

“This is one of the first times in the country that an officer has been held liable when it was not caught on tape,” O’Connor said Tuesday. “… Because it was the officers’ word against the witnesses’. This is a significant victory.”

Surveillance video showed Handy walking outside, but Handy wasn’t in view of the camera when he was shot. St. Paul officers had not yet begun wearing body cameras when Handy was killed — the department rolled them out later in 2017.

St. Paul Police Chief Axel Henry said in a Tuesday statement that he “100 percent support(s) our officers, including their actions in this incident. I am surprised and disheartened by this award not only as a police officer, but also as a member of this community.”

Handy-Jones said the last six years have been long, and she hopes the victory in her lawsuit will help other families.

“Justice delayed does not mean justice denied,” she said. “We know our children and I knew that my son did not point a gun at the police. I knew it in my heart.”

She started the Cordale Q. Handy In Remembrance of Me Foundation, which provides headstones for families who have lost children to police and community violence. She said the money awarded Tuesday will allow her to help more families.

Juror says autopsy was important evidence
Paul Bosman, who worked on the case as an attorney for Communities United Against Police Brutality, said CUAPB’s volunteer Reinvestigation Workgroup went through thousands of pages of BCA documents, along with videos, photographs and Handy’s autopsy report, which was used as evidence in the lawsuit.

After responding to a 911 call in March 2017, Younce and Norman encountered Handy outside in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood. The officers reported they saw Handy fall down backward, lower his gun and raise it briefly toward Norman. The officers said Handy raised the gun toward Norman a second time and they shot him 10 times, seven of which struck him when he was on the ground.

When the case was over Tuesday, one of the jurors, Harold Martin, said he found Younce liable because he fired first and he “didn’t have the gun pointed at him. The gun was supposedly pointed at the other officer, who delayed his shooting.”

As Martin reviewed the evidence, he said, “My biggest concern was the autopsy didn’t match what the two policemen had said.”

Dr. Ronald Wright, a forensic pathologist testifying for Handy-Jones, said during the trial that Handy’s injuries indicated he was on the ground with his knees bent up when he was shot — there were gunshot wounds to his back, lower leg, the bottom of his foot and his right forearm. Officers said Handy had held the gun in his right hand. Wright testified that Handy could not hold a gun after he sustained the gunshot to the forearm.

The order of the gunshot wounds wasn’t known and Assistant City Attorney Tony Edwards asked if the trajectory of the wounds would be affected “if a person is in motion on the ground,” which Wright agreed with.

Edwards argued in his closing statement about damages that “it’s undisputed that Mr. Handy had a gun, that he was high on bath salts,” a drug that experts testified can cause hallucinations. He said he didn’t think the evidence showed a cover-up, but that officers and two witnesses had different recollections of what happened.

Edwards also said evidence in the case “does not demonstrate the sort of malicious or reckless indifference that would be required to award punitive damages.” But the jurors, who deliberated Tuesday about damages, didn’t agree.

Younce is still a St. Paul officer. Norman left the department in 2021 because his wife got a job outside of the Twin Cities.

Community organizer urges criminal charges
Johnathon McClellan, Minnesota Justice Coalition president, requested the U.S. Department of Justice open an investigation into the St. Paul Police Department, as DOJ did with Minneapolis police. A DOJ civil rights spokesperson declined comment Tuesday.

McClellan also urged Ramsey County Attorney John Choi to file criminal charges against the officers.

The county attorney’s office is open to reviewing the case again if the BCA finds “any newly discovered and significant evidence or testimony that is at odds with what was previously presented to us by the BCA for review in 2017,” spokesman Dennis Gerhardstein said Monday.

“This civil lawsuit and the decision are based upon a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard of proof, which is significantly less than a ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard that must be unanimously agreed to by jurors in a criminal case,” he said.

The case was a rare occasion of a lawsuit against the city of St. Paul in a shooting by an officer being heard by a jury.

A staff member in the city attorney’s office with 40 years of experience doesn’t recall another such case. Other lawsuits have been dismissed before trial or ended in settlements negotiated between attorneys.

The St. Paul City Council signed off on a $1.3 million settlement in January to the family of Marcus Golden, who St. Paul officers fatally shot in 2015. The settlement agreement in that case, which contained standard wording, said the city denied the lawsuit’s allegations and they wished “to settle and resolve all outstanding disputes and claims between them to avoid the uncertainties and costs associated with continued litigation of this matter.”

A $2 million settlement approved by the city council in 2017 was the largest the city had agreed to. It was for a man who was hospitalized for two weeks after he was bit by a police dog and kicked by a St. Paul officer.

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