The mother of a schizophrenic man, who was killed last month by Hawthorne police a few hours after he escaped from a psychiatric ward, filed a $10-million lawsuit against the city of Hawthorne on Thursday, alleging that the city's Police Department has a "racially motivated bias" against blacks.
The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court and requests $5 million in general damages and $5 million in punitive damages, alleges that Hawthorne police used excessive and unreasonable force against Terence Williams, 20, and thereby deprived him of his civil rights. Williams, who was unarmed, was shot to death July 1 after a scuffle with police that left one officer with a broken nose and another with facial injuries.
Describing the shooting as an "execution," attorney Benjamin Schonbrun said that Williams, who was black, was killed by a white officer and that the department has "a racial bias against blacks and other minorities." He added that Williams had no police record.
"We believe that we will be able to prove in a court of law that this shooting was unjustified, unreasonable, brutal, callous and wanton," Schonbrun said.
Hawthorne Police Chief Stephen Port said in a statement Thursday that he would have no comment because he had not seen the suit. The officer involved in the shooting has not been publicly identified, and investigations have not been completed.
According to an autopsy report released Thursday, an investigator with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was told that Williams was shot after he tried to take the officer's weapon.
The autopsy report said Williams, who stood 5 feet, 10 inches and weighed about 130 pounds, was shot at least six times in the head, chest and face and had several bruises on the front and back of his legs. Medical examiners found no traces of drugs or alcohol in his system.
Sheriff's Detective Mike Lee, who is investigating the shooting, said in a recent interview that the officers had used a restraining device called "nunchakus" to try to subdue Williams before he ran away. A nunchakus is two one-foot long lengths of hard plastic connected by a length of cord.
Standing with her family on the steps of the federal courthouse after the suit was filed, Williams' mother, Loretta Brown, 44, quietly described her son as "a nice person, outgoing, funny sometimes."
Her 24-year-old son, Brian Williams, added: "The lawsuit can't bring back my little brother, but it can show the public (that police) can't go around shooting people and get away with it."
Williams, who was first hospitalized for schizophrenia in 1988 and who occasionally received injections for his condition, was hearing voices on the morning of July 1 when family members decided to take him to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, Brown said.
Although Williams usually received his shots at a clinic near the family's home, the clinic was closed that day. So Brown and her daughter, Monica, took him to the hospital, where he was placed under a 72-hour hold for an evaluation, Brown said. About 1:30 p.m., Williams decided he did not want to stay at the hospital and fled, Schonbrun said.
In an interview shortly after the shooting, Alonzo Whitaker, the hospital's chief of safety police, said that Williams became combative when two police officers tried to escort him to a room across the hall, where he was to receive some medication.
The officers called for assistance, but Williams broke free and ran out the door, Whitaker said. Although an officer received scratches to his arm and a sprained finger in the struggle to restrain Williams, the officer was able to continue working, Whitaker said.
He added that the officer did not consider the assault to be serious. "We were merely trying to get him the kind of care his family brought him here for in the first place," Whitaker said.
After Williams escaped from the hospital, neighboring police agencies were notified by hospital police. Schonbrun said an all-points bulletin was issued. Several hours later, two Hawthorne police officers arrived at Williams' home, confronting him as he was about to get into his car.
As the officers tried to handcuff him, Williams somehow escaped, striking the officers and leaving one with a bloodied nose before running up the driveway and hopping a fence.
After the shooting, investigating officers said they knew of no witnesses.
Schonbrun said he can produce witnesses who had told him that Williams had his hands over his head to surrender when an officer, who was standing 10 to 15 feet away, shot him. The witnesses, whom Schonbrun declined to identify, told him that Williams was shot twice while standing up and four times after he fell to the ground.
"We think that's an execution and it's unjustifiable," Schonbrun said.