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Mitchell v. City of Chicago

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 5, 2017

Octavia Mitchell, Plaintiff-Appellant,
City of Chicago, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued February 6, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 11-CV-2741 - Sharon Johnson Coleman, Judge.

          Before Rovner and Williams, Circuit Judges, and Conley, District Judge [*]

          Williams, Circuit Judge.

         On April 24, 2010, Chicago Police Officers pulled over eighteen year old Izael Jackson ("Jackson") for a missing front license plate. He was shot three times in the back by the officers and died the next day. Jackson's mother, Octavia Mitchell ("Mitchell"), brought a civil suit for excessive force and wrongful death against the City of Chicago and the officers for the officers' traffic stop turned homicide. After months of discovery the case went to trial. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants and the district court entered its judgment.

         On appeal, Mitchell argues that the trial court erred by excluding evidence or argument relating to a failure to test DNA swabs recovered from the scene of the shooting. But we find no error in the district court's evidentiary rulings. The only issue before the jury was whether the officers were justified in shooting Jackson. A lack of DNA evidence, without more, would not tend to prove or disprove the officers' justification. As the district court noted, there was nothing tying the shooting officers to any missing DNA evidence and it would be unfair to assume that testing of the DNA swabs would have helped, or harmed, Mitchell's case. Therefore, we affirm the district court's rulings which quashed Mitchell's subpoena to the Illinois State Police and excluded evidence relating to potential DNA evidence.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On the evening of April 24, 2010, Sergeant Cascone and Officer Belcher, members of the Chicago Police Department's Mobile Strike Force, were on patrol in a marked squad car. Officers Lopez and Gonzalez, in a second marked squad car, were behind them following in a "wolf pack" formation.[1] They spotted a white Buick, without a front license plate, traveling north on State Street. The officers decided to stop the car for the simple traffic violation and put on flashing lights. They followed the car onto a neighborhood street and it slowed and stopped. Izael Jackson, a passenger, got out.

         According to the officers' testimony, Jackson immediately began firing a weapon in the direction of the squad cars. Officer Belcher returned fire through the windshield of his patrol car, while Sergeant Cascone radioed for backup. At this point, the car sped away, leaving Jackson behind. While looking over his shoulder and shooting in the direction of the police cars, Jackson began running away from the officers. As Jackson fled, Officer Belcher fired two or three shots at him through the windshield of the police car. Officer Gonzales raised his rifle and began to fire at Jackson's back as well. Jackson fell to the ground and stopped moving. The officers approached and Officer Lopez kicked the gun, later determined to be a Glock Model 19 9-millimeter semi-automatic handgun, out of Jackson's hand and handcuffed him. Paramedics were called, and Jackson was transported to Stroger Hospital where he died the next morning.

         Following Jackson's death, Mitchell filed this civil suit bringing claims of excessive force under the Fourth Amendment and the Illinois wrongful death statute against the City of Chicago and the officers. Mitchell alleged that the shooting death of her son was unjustified because Jackson never had a gun and never shot at the officers.

         A jury trial was held, and Mitchell presented two eyewitnesses, Taza Williams and her mother, Sandra Williams. Taza testified that she watched the shooting from her mother's window and saw four or five police officers chasing Jackson before shooting him. She also stated that it was dark but it looked like Jackson did not have a gun. After Jackson fell to the ground, she saw the police officers "dragging him, kicking him, and stomping him." Sandra, who was also watching through the window of her home, testified that she clearly saw Jackson run away from the police officers with his hands up in the air and he did not have a gun. She also stated that she saw Jackson's mouth moving but could not hear what he was saying. But she also stated that she clearly heard Jackson say he did not have a gun.

         The City highlighted inconsistencies in the testimony of Taza and Sandra and presented evidence that undermined their credibility. The City also offered expert testimony that showed gunshot residue was found on Jackson's hand, which indicated that he was holding or in close proximity to a discharged firearm. Expert testimony also revealed that sixteen expended shell casings found at the scene came from the Glock Model 19 9-millimeter, corroborating the officers' testimony that the gun was shot from Jackson's location. There were no fingerprints found on the Glock Model 19 9-millimeter gun, which the City's expert explained was not unusual given the smooth surface of the gun and rain on the evening of the shooting.

         The crime scene investigator, John J. Miller, who collected evidence from the scene, testified that he took DNA swabs from the Glock Model 19 9-millimeter weapon, which he recovered at 6102-6104 S. Prairie Street. For unknown reasons, the DNA swabs were never tested by the Illinois State Police, the agency responsible for testing forensic evidence in this case. Mitchell failed to identify experts challenging the City experts' testimony and did not seek testing of the DNA swabs.

         At the close of evidence, a directed verdict was entered as to Officers Cascone and Lopez, the two police officers who did not fire weapons at Jackson. After short deliberations, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the City, Sergeant Belcher, and Officer Gonzalez on all claims. Mitchell moved for a new trial, arguing that the district court erred ...

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