WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court has ruled that a Prince George’s County police officer did not use excessive force when he shot an unarmed man, because the officer believed that the man was going for a gun.
Major Maurice Anderson was actually reaching to shut off the Walkman radio in his back pocket when Officer David Russell shot and wounded him three times in 1991 outside Prince George’s Plaza.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that the officer’s “split-second decision to use deadly force against Anderson was reasonable in light of Russell’s well-founded, though mistaken, belief that Anderson was reaching for a handgun.”
“It’s perhaps eight years too late for the officer who had to worry about it, but still it’s certainly a level of vindication,” said Jay H. Creech, Russell’s attorney.
A jury had ruled in 1996 that Russell used excessive force and had no qualified immunity as a police officer when he shot Anderson.
But the trial judge set aside that jury’s verdict. U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow said that, while the Russell used excessive force, he should be granted immunity because he was following his training as a police officer.
The appeals court this week also ruled in Russell’s favor, but for a different reason. It said Russell did not use excessive force and that he should have been granted immunity from prosecution in the first place.
Anderson’s attorney, Douglas Datt, said Friday that he “was obviously a little bit disappointed” in the Thursday ruling.
Datt said he had not decided if he would appeal and had not been able to contact Anderson about the appellate court ruling.
According to court records, Anderson had already been drinking when he arrived at the mall around 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 28, 1991, and bought another bottle of wine. He drank that bottle as he walked through the mall, wearing a black jacket over three shirts and a sweater.
Tucked underneath Anderson’s belt was a shoe polish container inside an eyeglass case. He also had a Walkman in his back pocket and was wearing earphones under a hat.
Russell was working security at the mall with another officer when a shopper told them that Anderson the bulge under his waistband looked like a gun.
The officers watched Anderson until he left the mall, when they approached with guns drawn and ordered him to raise his hands and drop to his knees. Anderson complied at first, but then lowered his hands and started to reach into his back pocket to turn off his radio, according to court records.
Russell shot Anderson three times, causing permanent damage to his left arm and left leg. It was later revealed that Anderson was unarmed.
A witness testified at trial that Anderson was lowering his hands slowly and his hands “were still around his head level” when Russell opened fire. But the appeals court noted that the witness was watching from 20 to 30 feet away, inside the mall where a doorframe obstructed his view of Anderson’s hands.
Russell has since left the Prince George’s County Police force, and Creech could not say Friday what he is doing now. Russell could not be reached for comment.
Datt could only say Friday that Anderson is unemployed.