After eight years, a federal appeals court has reopened a wrongful death claim against Walmart in the case of an Ohio Black man who was fatally shot in a Dayton-area store by a white police officer. With the new decision, the family is now able to sue the corporation for liability and negligence.
On Wednesday, Nov. 23, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Ohio reversed a lower court’s ruling with a 2-1 decision in the 2014 case where John Crawford III, a 22-year-old African-American, was shot and killed at a Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart after he picked up a pellet rifle from a shelf.
A man called 911, claiming Crawford was threatening customers, and one of the two responding officers killed Crawford for the ostensible reason that he posed a threat to the officer.
A grand jury declined to indict Crawford’s killer, Officer Sean Williams, a month after the shooting, and in 2019 a judge dismissed the family’s wrongful death claim against Walmart.
Video of the Aug. 5, 2014, incident from the store’s surveillance cameras showed Crawford walking around the store but not pointing the gun as he occasionally leaned it on his shoulder while talking on a phone. Ronald Ritchie, the person who erroneously reported that Crawford was waving the gun recklessly and pointing it at children in the store, was never charged despite admitting he lied.
Details of Crawford’s death showed he was talking on the phone with the mother of his young children when police shot him from near the opposite end of the aisle Crawford was on. He was holding a BB gun and she, LeeCee Johnson, said she heard him say, “It wasn’t real.”
“He said he was at the video games playing videos, and he went over there by the toy section where the toy guns were,” his girlfriend said. “The next thing I know, he said, ‘It’s not real,’ and the police start shooting, and they said, ‘Get on the ground,’ but he was already on the ground because they had shot him.”
After Crawford was shot, Williams handcuffed him while he was in a pool of his own blood – forcing his hands into the restraints.
Johnson stayed on the phone to hear the shooting and the melee that happened afterward, not hanging up for almost an hour. During that time, she said, she heard him dying on the other end of the line.
Reports say Crawford’s elbow was blown off, and the officer who handcuffed him tried to apply tourniquets to wounds on both arms to slow up the bleeding and fix the injury.
Williams tapped Crawford on the side of his face, as the young man’s eyes rolled into the back of his head and he moaned.
The officer then tried to get him to stay awake, telling him that medical attention was soon coming.
Crawford died before paramedics arrived.
Williams originally said before reviewing video of the incident that Crawford maintained an aggressive stance and refused verbal commands. He also said it looked like the man was turning to point the gun at him and his partner.
“If John would have been standing there in a non-threatening manner, I wouldn’t have pulled the trigger,” Williams said in a 201 deposition.
The video showed that Crawford didn’t have enough time to adjust himself before being shot.
A court decided in 2019 that the store was not at all liable for the man’s death. Now, two of three judges on a panel decided there are grounds for the family to challenge the mega-retailer, saying they should have prevented their loved one from carrying the firearm in the store.
Two judges rationalized “at the time of Crawford’s death, Walmart had no policies in place to prevent customers from picking up unsecured and unboxed pellet guns … and carrying them around the store without employee supervision.”
The court’s majority opinion also stated, “a reasonable jury could find that Walmart failed to prevent Crawford from carrying a look-alike AR-15 openly around the store … and that this omission created an excited state of mind in Williams, who fatally shot Crawford because he feared that the gun he believed was being turned towards him was a genuine assault rifle.”
On Friday, Nov. 25, Michael Wright, of the lawyers representing the family, said the family can sue for wrongful death, including negligence.
Also on Friday, Walmart released a statement about the decision.
“We take the safety and security of our customers seriously and continue to sympathize with [the] family of John Crawford,” Randy Hargrove, senior director of the National Media Relations Corporate Communications for Walmart, said, “We respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling, and we will continue defending the company.”
Going forward, this case will only be with Walmart.
Previously, the family settled a wrongful death claim with the town of Beavercreek and its Beavercreek police officers Sean Williams and David Darkow, former Police Chief Dennis Evers. The family was able to reach a settlement for $1.7 million and for the force to make police policy changes, Cincinnati.com reported.