7th Circuit affirms for ex-officer in fatal shooting of South Bend Black man

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The family of a Black South Bend man who was fatally shot by a now-resigned white police officer found no relief from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals after it concluded that the officer gave the man “a chance to live” before shooting.

Last year, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana entered summary judgment for former South Bend police officer Ryan O’Neill on claims that he violated Eric Jack Logan’s rights under the Fourth and 14th amendments when he shot and killed the man. The 7th Circuit affirmed that ruling on Monday.

At the time of the incident in June 2019, O’Neill fired at Logan while responding to a report of a man breaking into vehicles in the parking lot of a local apartment complex. According to a deposition and affidavit from O’Neill ­—­ the only living eyewitness — Logan was holding a knife above his head and was advancing toward O’Neill before he threw the knife, hitting the officer in the arm.

O’Neill then fired his gun, hitting Logan in the torso. An ambulance was called but Logan died at the hospital.

After losing in the district court, Logan’s estate appealed to the 7th Circuit, which affirmed in Estate of Eric Jack Logan v. City of South Bend, Indiana, and Ryan O’Neill, 21-2922.

“The Estate does not deny that Logan had a hunting knife; ignored commands to drop the knife, stand still, or get down; advanced on O’Neill; and threw the knife at him. But the Estate contends that one of O’Neill’s multiple descriptions of these events implies that Logan threw the knife a second or so before O’Neill pulled the trigger. If that is the sequence, the Estate submits, then O’Neill was safe (Logan was no longer armed) and could not use deadly force,” wrote Judge Frank Easterbrook, joined by Judges Michael Scudder and Candace Jackson-Akiwumi.

“Moreover, the Estate contends, a jury might doubt O’Neill’s version of events because he did not activate his body camera until he had fired, and he has been convicted of ghost employment, a felony in Indiana,” Easterbrook continued. “If O’Neill is not credible, the argument goes, then a jury could find that he used unreasonable force.”

But the 7th Circuit concluded that litigation must be resolved on the evidence that exists in the case and that “(w)hen an officer who used deadly force is the only possible witness, a decedent’s estate is unlikely to succeed unless physical evidence contradicts the officer’s account.”

Here, the court said, the physical evidence of the bullet track was consistent with O’Neill’s account.

“Disbelief of the only witness is not proof that the opposite of the witness’s statements is true; disbelief would mean that the record is empty, and on an empty record the plaintiff loses, because the plaintiff has the burdens of production and persuasion,” Easterbrook wrote.

Further, the appellate court rejected the estate’s argument that O’Neill’s statement — “He threw a knife at me, so I shot him” — admitted to a temporal sequence of knife first, shot second. The court noted that the use of force must end “after a suspect has been subdued” but that Logan was “still on his feet and advancing” when he was shot.

Relatedly, the 7th Circuit wrote that the use of force remains reasonable after a suspect employs a weapon, has not surrendered and thus remains dangerous. It declined to align with the estate’s assertion that because O’Neill fired only two shots, he believed he was safe.

“O’Neill knew that he had hit Logan with his second shot, which induced Logan to surrender. The idea that police officers must keep shooting a suspect in order to establish their right to have fired in the first place is perverse,” Easterbrook wrote. “Such a principle would induce officers to empty their magazines — making sure that the suspect dies — instead of using the least force necessary to end the hazard. O’Neill left Logan with a chance to live and should not be penalized for doing so.

“The fact that many shootings by police eliminate an important source of evidence is troubling, but litigation remains tied to the record,” the court concluded. “This record compels a decision for O’Neill.”

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