City, officers ‘surprised’ by jury’s Landon Nobles excessive force verdict

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the jury recommends the defendants pay a total of $67 million.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After seven days of testimony, jurors determined on Wednesday Lt. Richard Egal and Sgt. Maxwell Johnson used excessive force to the point of violating the Constitutional rights of 24-year-old Landon Nobles in May 2017. It also recommended a total of $67 million in damages. That result “surprised” officers and the city, according to a City of Austin Austin spokeswoman.

Landon Nobles, 24 at the time, was shot and killed after a crowd dispersed from in front of bars around 2:45 a.m. on East Sixth Street in downtown Austin during the 2017 Pecan Street Festival.

Jurors further decided both Egal and Johnson acted in a way that was unreasonable for an officer in the situation.

“This jury verdict sends a message that police behavior in the city of Austin has to tone down. The level of violence against the citizenry over the course of years has been answered now by the people of Travis County,” said Nobles’ family’s attorney, Edmund “Skip” Davis.

“The City acknowledges the jury verdict and will explore all options as we move forward. The City and the Officers are genuinely surprised by the verdict, both the question of liability and certainly on the dollar amount awarded,” said a statement a City of Austin spokeswoman shared.

This was a civil case, so jurors did not have to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt as they would in a criminal case. They just needed to believe there was more than a 50% chance the plaintiff’s claim was true.

“In one you need the scales just to tip a little more one way than the other, and in the criminal case it has to be overwhelming evidence,” said Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association.

Both Lawrence and the executive director of the Austin Police Association believe the jury’s decision will ultimately be overturned in appellate court.

“This totally caught us off guard; it was not even on our radar. We knew the trial was going on, but we did not expect this verdict. We’re disappointed by it,” said Ken Casaday, APA’s executive director. “We don’t agree with this verdict, and we stand by these officers 110%.”

Casaday also said the jury’s decision will not have any impact on the officers’ jobs, nor will it prompt the department to review use-of-force policies or make any changes, because the district attorney’s office never filed any criminal charges against Lt. Egal and Sgt. Johnson. KXAN has reached out to the Austin Police Department to confirm how the verdict affects the officers’ current roles.

As of Wednesday evening, no appeal had officially been filed. We reached out to the officers’ attorneys for comment but have not heard back. Cameras are not allowed inside the federal courthouse.

The DA’s office previously cleared Lt. Egal and Sgt. Johnson of any wrongdoing, so no criminal charges were filed. The Nobles family said it waited a year for proof of this, and attorney Davis said he found evidence that shows otherwise — prompting the civil wrongful death suit seeking $15 million in damages.

On the last day of testimony, Lt. Egal took the stand, recounting how quickly everything happened, and said by direction of his training, Nobles presented a danger to the public that warranted Egal to fire his gun. Egal said Nobles matched the description of the subject of a shots fired call he had heard on his radio. The officer admitted to pushing his bicycle into Nobles to stop him as he was running by. That’s when Egal said he heard a “clanking” and “clearly saw a gun.” Egal said he saw Nobles get up and run and fired two-to-three rounds to “stop the lethal threat” he believed Nobles presented.

Prior witnesses Davis called to the stand, including people who were working downtown that night as well as friends and family of Nobles, said they never saw Nobles with a gun, and they never believed he was a threat to officers.

During closing arguments Tuesday, Davis emphasized Nobles was shot in his back, and witnesses with “no dog in the hunt” testified Nobles did not have a weapon. He also argued not every officer responding to the situation fired gunshots.

On the other side, attorneys for the Austin Police Department officers maintain Nobles posed an “imminent threat to serious bodily harm or death,” and the officers acted quickly to ensure public safety.

The jury made decisions on each officer separately, which meant potentially one officer could have been found guilty but not the other.

Jurors recommended Egal and Johnson pay a total of $67 million in damages, split among Nobles’ mother and the mothers of his two children.

Written by Brianna HollisRussell Falcon

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