State News

N.C. jury awards $850,000 to former soldier

Posted October 28, 2009 6:52 a.m. EDT
Updated October 28, 2009 6:20 p.m. EDT

— A former Army sergeant wounded during a military training exercise was awarded $850,000 in his lawsuit against the Moore County Sheriff's Office and the former deputy who shot him.

A federal jury in Greensboro awarded the money to former Army Sgt. Stephen Phelps, who was injured in the February 2002 shooting that killed another soldier. He had sued the sheriff's office and former Deputy Randall Butler.

"I was happy that the truth finally came out," Phelps said after the verdict was read Tuesday night.

The jury awarded $650,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 each as punitive damages for Butler’s violation of state and federal law, Phelps' lawyer, Carlos Mahoney, said.

Mahoney was seeking $1.2 million.

"It was merely the verdict I was seeking. I wanted to be heard by a jury of my peers," Phelps said.

Moore County Sheriff Lane Carter said neither he nor Butler would comment. Jim Morgan, who represented Butler and the sheriff's office, declined to comment on whether they would appeal the verdict.

Phelps and 1st Lt. Tallas Tomeny had been taking part in Robin Sage, an exercise that trains soldiers for Special Forces. Tomeny was killed, and his estate settled out of court.

During Robin Sage, soldiers simulate infiltration of a foreign nation. Phelps and Charles Leiber, a civilian who was playing the role of an adviser, testified that they thought Butler stopping their vehicle was part of the exercise.

Butler had argued that the men were acting suspiciously in an area that had experienced a lot burglaries. Butler also said he saw two machine guns and that Tomeny had told Phelps to kill him.

Phelps said Butler overreacted.

“An exercise that’s gone on for half of a century – it’s difficult for me to fathom how a law enforcement officer, any law enforcement officer, could not know that was going on,” Phelps said.

“It seems ludicrous at best, if not an outright falsehood,” he said of the assertion.

On Tuesday, jurors said they didn't believe Butler's claims about the guns or the order to kill. Greg Harris of Hoke County said he found Phelps and Leiber more believable than Butler.

"Mr. Leiber's testimony was pretty strong," he said. "And Phelps - (the lawyers) couldn't get him crossed up. His story stayed the same throughout his testimony."

Harris said Butler's story changed.

Phelps, 35, now lives in Florida and works as a defense contractor. He said he can never forget the day of the shooting, but he’s tried to put it past him. “I just keep pushing on. It’s not something that I dwell on," he said.