Political News

Family of man shot by deputy reaches $2.5 million settlement

Posted May 15

— The parents of an unarmed man fatally shot by a Florida sheriff's sergeant at the family's nursery announced Monday that they have agreed to a $2.5 million settlement and called for the reopening of a criminal investigation into their son's death.

Dick and Lydia Adams said the payment by the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office is only partial justice for the May 16, 2012, shooting of Seth Adams, 24, by Sgt. Michael Custer. Local and federal prosecutors should now re-examine the case and charge Custer with a crime, they said. A previous investigation by the sheriff's office cleared Custer, although the federal judge who presided over the family's lawsuit has since called the probe "slipshod."

"Our attorneys with the help of forensic experts proved with the evidence that Sgt. Custer lied and (the sheriff's office) covered up his misconduct," Dick Adams said. "This case has brought to light the inability of the (sheriff's office) to conduct an appropriate and thorough investigation."

The sheriff's office did not respond to a phone call and emails seeking comment. Mike Edmondson, a spokesman for Palm Beach State Attorney Dave Aronberg, said Custer was cleared by the previous state attorney and the office would be willing to examine any new evidence the family's attorneys could provide. Wallace McCall, the family's attorney, said he would make all the evidence he collected available. Federal prosecutors declined comment.

The sheriff's office recently settled at least three other lawsuits involving questionable shootings, agreeing to pay a combined $2.7 million. In February 2016, a jury awarded $22 million to a young black man left paralyzed after a deputy mistook his cellphone for a gun and shot him. That verdict is being appealed. No criminal charges were filed in any of those cases.

The announcement of the Adams settlement came one day before the five-year anniversary of his death and two months after a federal civil jury deadlocked 8-1 in the family's favor. The family had been seeking between $10 million and $20 million and a retrial had been scheduled for the summer.

"I miss my boy. We have been given a life sentence, a life sentence to grieve his loss," said Lydia Adams, weeping.

Dressed in plainclothes, Custer had parked his unmarked SUV in the lot about 11 p.m. so he could watch a nearby road. He was supervising surveillance on a gang of ATM thieves, all white men in their 20s, as Adams was.

When Adams arrived home from a bar shortly before midnight, he pulled his pickup up about 15 feet (4.5 meters) from Custer's SUV. Adams had no criminal history and witnesses at the bar said he had been in a good mood when he left 10 minutes before the shooting.

Custer, who is white, testified that the 6-foot-4 (190-centimeter) Adams immediately began cursing him, making him think he might be a gang member sent to distract him. He said that after they both got out of their vehicles, Adams rushed toward him and grabbed him by the throat. Custer, who is 5-foot-8 (170 centimeters), said he fought off Adams, pulled his gun and ordered Adams to the ground. Instead, he said, Adams ran back to his truck's cab.

Custer said he kicked the door closed on Adams, pinning him, but that Adams was still able to begin rummaging as if he were retrieving a weapon. He said he grabbed Adams' neck and warned him he was about to be shot. He said when Adams spun toward him, he fired four shots, hitting Adams in the right forearm and twice in the chest. Adams stumbled into the nursery before collapsing.

The Adamses' attorneys, however, say the evidence shows Adams was shot behind the truck and that there was no immediate confrontation between the two. The bullet that tore through his forearm was found behind the truck, not inside the cab where it should have been if Custer's story were true, they say, adding that the blood trail also appeared to begin behind the truck.

Also, a member of Custer's surveillance team said he drove past the parking lot about a minute before the shooting and saw both men outside their vehicles. Detective Kevin Drummond testified he heard no yelling and saw nothing that made him think Custer was endangered, so he didn't stop.

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