WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A Florida sheriff's sergeant told a federal jury Wednesday that he shot an unarmed nurseryman because he feared he was about to be killed when the man during a brawl appeared to be grabbing a weapon and spun toward him while yelling an obscenity.
Palm Beach County Sgt. Michael Custer told the federal civil jury that Seth Adams, 24, began the fight by grabbing him by the neck and then refused to comply with his orders to get on the ground. Adams' parents are suing Custer and the sheriff's office for unspecified millions, alleging the shooting was unjustified.
Custer was working in plain clothes when he parked his unmarked SUV in the parking lot of the nursery where Adams lived and worked with his brother and sister-in-law. He was supervising a surveillance team searching for a gang of ATM thieves, mostly white males in their 20s, like Adams.
A short time later, Adams returned home from a nearby bar where he had been drinking. Tests showed his blood-alcohol content was 0.13, well over Florida's 0.08 limit for driving, but the family's attorneys contend those results could have been skewed by his massive blood loss. The sheriff's hired toxicologist disputed that possibility.
Custer, who was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, told the jury that Adams, who had no criminal record or history of violence, immediately began yelling obscenities at him and demanded to know who he was without identifying himself as a resident. Custer said he thought he might be a member of the gang, which he said has a history of counter surveillance against the police.
Custer, who is also white, said he identified himself as a sheriff's deputy but after they both exited their vehicles, he said Adams came at him. He says Adams grabbed him hard by the throat and tried to choke him, making him believe that he was in a potentially life or death fight. He said he broke free and tried to force Adams to the ground by drawing his gun, but the 6-foot-4 Adams wouldn't comply.
Standing before the jury, the 5-foot-8 Custer demonstrated how he says he yelled, "Get on the ground! Get on the ground or I will shoot you!" while pointing his .40 caliber Glock semi-automatic handgun at Adams.
He said Custer soon ran back toward his truck's open front door. He said he followed and kicked the door, causing a dent seen in photos, pinning Adams. He said Adams bent over into the cab like he was trying to retrieve a weapon, so he grabbed Adams by the neck and tried to pull him away while threatening to shoot him.
He said Adams suddenly spun toward him, yelling another obscenity.
"I was beyond scared -- I was terrified," Custer said. He said an image of his wife's face passed before his eyes as he fired four shots, hitting Adams three times. He later died at the hospital.
The attorneys for Adams' parents have said the physical evidence doesn't match Custer's story, saying the location of a spent bullet, the bullet casings and the blood stains show he was shot behind the truck. A member of Custer's surveillance team testified earlier that he drove past the parking lot about a minute before the shooting and saw no signs of hostility between Custer and Adams and heard no yelling.
Cross examination of Custer is scheduled to continue Thursday.
Meanwhile, outside the jury's presence, U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley blasted the sheriff's office's investigation of the shooting as "slipshod and shocking." He laid out a number of deficiencies, including the failure of the lead detective to do an accurate reenactment of the shooting with Custer; the detective's failure to reconcile discrepancies between Custer's statement and the physical evidence; and numerous failures by crime scene investigators, including not seizing Custer's potentially blood-stained boots, not measuring the distance between Custer's SUV and Adams' truck and not testing the liquid in a beer mug found in the truck.
"The community has the right to know an investigation is done properly," Hurley said. He said the investigation's numerous shortcomings have made it difficult to determine what happened, hurting both sides. The sheriff's office declined to comment.