A federal jury awarded a Chicago man a record-breaking $44.7 million Thursday after finding that a Chicago police officer shot him in the head after a night of heavy drinking and that the troubled Police Department enabled the off-duty patrolman’s violent behavior.
The 10-member jury deliberated for two days before reaching its decision, bringing an end to the nearly four-week civil trial that repeatedly hit upon the police accountability issues that have dogged the city for decades.
Though they needed some time to reach a unanimous decision on how much to award in damages, jurors said it took them less than 20 minutes to determine Officer Patrick Kelly fired a bullet into his best friend Michael LaPorta’s skull in January 2010 and then misled investigators by insisting LaPorta tried to kill himself.
LaPorta, who lives in the city’s Morgan Park neighborhood, survived the shooting but still suffers from a host of medical conditions. Now 37, he can no longer walk or read and depends on his aging parents for around-the-clock care.
He smiled after the verdict, while his relatives cried and embraced each other. Two jurors later returned to the courtroom to hug LaPorta and his parents.
“I feel whole again,” LaPorta said in a soft, halting voice.
Because the jury found that the Police Department has a widespread problem with disciplining officers and failed to maintain an early-warning system, the city of Chicago is responsible for the $44.7 million award and LaPorta’s legal fees, which likely also will be millions of dollars.
The verdict is a record award for a misconduct lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department, according to records reviewed by the Chicago Tribune and sources with knowledge of where the verdict would rank in comparison with past cases.
The previous record was $25 million, which a jury awarded to Thaddeus Jimenez in a wrongful conviction case in 2012.
“My client’s case cannot be viewed in isolation, but as the result of a larger institutional problem that has emboldened police officers with extensive histories of misconduct allegations to continue these harmful behaviors without fear of repercussions,” LaPorta’s attorney Antonio Romanucci said. “This verdict is a step towards creating meaningful and permanent institutional reform in law enforcement in the city of Chicago.”
Two jurors who spoke to reporters after the verdict said the massive award was absolutely intended to send a message to the city.
“They can’t get away with this,” said Andrea Diven, of North Aurora. “It’s something that’s embedded and it needs to change.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel declined to comment on the verdict, but the city’s Law Department released a statement saying it intended to appeal.
“We are disappointed in the jury’s verdict, and, as we argued in this case, taxpayers should not be responsible for an off-duty officer’s purely private actions,” said Bill McCaffrey, spokesman for the Law Department. The trial itself was handled by an outside law firm.
The Police Department also declined comment, but it confirmed Kelly has been stripped of his police powers, meaning he can no longer carry a gun or make arrests. Sources said the move was made last week after Kelly exercised his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions during the civil trial, including whether he shot LaPorta, his childhood friend and college roommate.
Kelly, 36, has been found mentally unfit for duty twice, arrested two times, accused of beating a girlfriend and has been treated for alcohol addiction. He has been sued six times and has been the subject of more than two dozen investigations into his on- and off-duty conduct, including one in which he was found to have assaulted a female sergeant.
Prosecutors opted not to charge Kelly with wrongdoing in connection with the shooting after it happened. Police, however, reopened their investigation into the shooting last year.
Kelly and LaPorta were the only people inside the patrolman’s South Side home on Jan. 12, 2010, when LaPorta was shot toward the back of his head with Kelly’s service weapon. Chicago police classified the shooting as an attempted suicide based largely on an account from Kelly.
LaPorta couldn’t speak for months after the shooting, but his family pushed back against the suicide classification and accused Kelly of covering up the truth. Kelly told investigators that LaPorta held the gun with his left hand, but the ambidextrous LaPorta was a lifelong hunter who always shot with his right. No fingerprints were on the gun, which investigators found on the floor next to LaPorta.
“I didn’t believe it was a suicide attempt,” Diven said. “There were a lot of things about that story that didn’t make sense.”
For damages to be awarded, LaPorta’s attorneys had to convince the jury that the preponderance of the evidence showed Kelly shot his friend. Once they found it was more likely than not that Kelly pulled the trigger, jurors had to decide whether the city’s police culture played a role in the shooting.
LaPorta’s attorneys argued the department’s “code of silence” — an unwritten understanding that officers protect each other even to the point of ignoring wrongdoing — allowed Kelly to escape any serious punishment and convinced him that he could act with impunity. While Emanuel has publicly acknowledged the code’s existence and enacted reforms aimed at fighting it, city attorneys played down its power to jurors, saying it was a “potential problem” and not a widespread practice.
The jury could not reach a unanimous decision on the code of silence issue, as one juror did not agree with the allegation, according to Diven and jury forewoman Michelle Fifer. However, they all agreed that the department had a widespread problem investigating, disciplining and identifying troubled officers.
In Kelly’s case, they decided, the city was liable for the shooting because it failed to discipline the veteran patrolman after previous allegations of wrongdoing and because it didn’t maintain an early warning system that could have identified him as a potential problem.
Kelly declined to answer questions during the trial, asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to more than two dozen questions that suggested he had shot LaPorta and then tried to cover it up. He previously has denied pulling the trigger.
Jurors were told they could take a “negative inference” from Kelly’s silence, meaning they can consider that he declined to answer questions because the truth could be bad for him. The panel believed there was enough evidence to find Kelly pulled the trigger, but the officer’s reticence sealed the decision for Diven.
“It was crucial,” she said. “It was a game-changer for me.”
LaPorta testified that he and Kelly went to Kelly’s home that morning after spending the night drinking at two South Side bars. Once there, LaPorta said, Kelly began hitting his dog and LaPorta announced he was leaving. LaPorta told jurors that he heard a clicking sound as he went to go, though he acknowledged he never saw Kelly holding a gun.
He denied ever being suicidal.
Before leaving the courthouse, he expressed relief that jury believed him.
“Finally got justice,” he said.
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