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Odds, ends and context from the Ellis trial

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The waiting continues this morning for a jury to decide how much the city of Albuquerque must pay the 7-year-old son of Kenneth Ellis III, who was unlawfully shot and killed in 2010 by Albuquerque Police Department Detective Brett Lampiris-Tremba.

After closing arguments Thursday in the week-long trial, jurors got the case around 1 p.m.

Prior to the trial, state District Judge Shannon Bacon made an unusual finding: that the shooting was a violation of Ellis’ Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution — that Lampiris-Tremba had, as a matter of law, used excessive force and that an objective officer making reasonable decisions wouldn’t have pulled the trigger.

While we wait for the jury’s verdict, I thought I would put together some odds, ends and context from the shooting, the lawsuit it spurred and the trial. I have covered this case from the day Ellis was shot — Jan. 13, 2010 — and there’s an awful lot to it.

For starters, the jury now considering various elements of the case is far from the first review of the shooting.

In December 2010, top prosecutors from the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office presented the case to an “investigative grand jury,” which ruled that Lampiris-Tremba was justified under New Mexico law when he shot Ellis. The grand jury heard evidence from a criminal investigation of the shooting conducted by APD with assistance from other law enforcement agencies. But as the Journal later learned and reported, presentations of police shootings to “investigative grand juries” had, since the inception of the process in the 1980s, always ended in justified findings. That process has been put on ice by District court judges.

Next up for the Ellis case: In April 2011, then-City Independent Review Officer William Deaton determined that the shooting was not justified. But the Police Oversight Commission, after hearing a presentation from Deaton, reversed the findings of the former state District Court judge and ruled that Lampiris-Tremba had been in the right when he shot Ellis once in the neck with his Springfield 1911 .45 caliber handgun following a nine-minute encounter with police. Police Chief Ray Schultz sided with the POC in determining that Lampiris-Tremba hadn’t violated APD policies or procedures. As a result, the detective, who had been with the department 14 years at the time of the shooting, wasn’t disciplined. (Read our coverage of the POC ruling here.)

The jury currently considering the case didn’t hear any testimony about the findings of the POC or the “investigative grand jury.” That’s because Judge Bacon, in ruling on a series of pretrial motions, kept attorneys for the Ellis family and for APD on a short leash in terms of introducing any testimony or evidence from events that transpired after the shooting.

Bacon’s philosophy appears to have been that anything that may have caused the shooting was fair game for the jury; anything that happened afterward was not.

One thread that Deputy City Attorney Kathy Levy agreed not to pursue — after a court motion from plaintiffs’ attorneys Joe and Shannon Kennedy and Frances Carpenter — was a belief at APD that Ellis had been a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a notorious white supremacist prison gang.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, APD Criminal Intelligence Unit Sgt. Ryan Buckner penned an “officer safety bulletin” that went to every APD officer. It warned that Ellis had been a member of the Aryan Brotherhood and that the gang planned to retaliate against police for his death.

As it turned out, Buckner had been relying on the word of a lone jailhouse informant. APD was never able to substantiate the claim of Ellis’ membership in the gang. Nevertheless, APD took steps: a protective detail was placed on Lampiris-Tremba’s home, and Buckner and others launched a massive investigation into an “active AB cell operating in Albuquerque” that included electronic surveillance, “disruptive drug buys” and other clandestine law enforcement tactics. (Read my story about the Aryan Brotherhood “threat,” which some claimed was highly dubious, and subsequent investigation here.)

Although jurors never heard testimony about the alleged Aryan Brotherhood connections, they did hear about one of the passengers in Ellis’ car the day Lampiris-Tremba shot the 25-year-old veteran. In fact, Lampiris-Tremba testified that he recognized the passenger, Steve “Flash” Gordon. “I had dealt with him before,” Lampiris-Tremba testified earlier this week. (The information from the jailhouse informant included a tip that Gordon, like Ellis, had been an Aryan Brotherhood member.)

Gordon died in December 2010, according to online death records. The circumstances are unclear and may have happened outside New Mexico.

Another APD claim that Levy agreed long before the trial began to abandon was the department’s initial theory of the case: that Ellis had committed “suicide by cop.” (That phrase actually appeared in the headline on my print story the day after the shooting.)

As much as they haven’t heard about the broader context of the case, jurors are considering a huge amount of testimony. The plaintiffs’ attorneys called 15 witnesses to the stand. (Levy called none.)

A significant amount of testimony has centered around APD’s hiring of Lampiris-Tremba and police officials decisions to keep him on the force after what the plaintiffs’ expert on police practices described as infractions he should have been fired for. That’s because one of the claims jurors are considering is whether the city was negligent in hiring, supervising and retaining Lampiris-Tremba.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers learned about Lampiris-Tremba’s attempts to join APD and the times he was disciplined after becoming a cop from his personnel file, which they subpoenaed during the discovery phase of the case. The plaintiffs’ team put what they had learned into an amended version of their complaint in the case, which was initially filed under a conditional seal.

Judge Bacon later granted the Journal’s motion to unseal the complaint. (That action resulted in my Oct. 7, 2011 story, which you can read here.)

Although I have filed six Web stories and as many stories for the print editions of the paper, there’s plenty from the past nine days that has fallen to the cutting room floor. Here is some of what hasn’t seen publication:

Officer Byron “Trey” Economidy is one of the defendants in the case. He was the officer who pinned Ellis’ Corvette into a parking space in front of the 7-Eleven at Eubank and Constitution NE as part of an auto theft investigation. The plaintiffs’ claim the unusual traffic stop was a violation of Ellis’ Fourth Amendment rights.

According to the officer’s testimony: After answering “yeah” to a question from Economidy about whether he was “tweaking” — slang for being high on methamphetamine — Ellis handed over a knife. As the officer took the knife back to his patrol car, Ellis got out of the Corvette and held a gun to his own head. Economidy pulled his AR-15 from the trunk of his police car and sought cover behind a gas pump. (He testified in court that in hindsight, it wasn’t the best place to seek cover.)

Economidy described the next nine minutes as “one of the scariest times I’ve had as a law enforcement officer.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Carpenter pressed him on that point: “Even scarier than the time you had to shoot someone?”

APD attorney Levy angrily objected to that line of questioning but, after an off-the-record conversation with the judge at the bench, Carpenter was allowed to continue. Without mentioning names or specifics, Economidy briefly described his Feb. 2011 fatal shooting of Jacob Mitschelen. (Economidy made headlines after reporters discovered he had listed his job description on Facebook as “human waste disposal.” Read more coverage of that shooting, which itself is the subject of civil litigation here and here.)

In answering Carpenter’s question, Economidy said the Ellis and Mitschelen scenes “were two entirely different situations.”

The courtroom has been pretty full for most of the trial — with the notable exceptions of the hour-plus during which the plaintiffs’ forensic economist was testifying about how much Ellis’ life was worth in dollars ($6 million) and the two times testimony was given about the mental state of Kenneth Ellis IV. (Bacon closed the courtroom to all but the parties and court staff on those occasions to protect the 7-year-old boy’s privacy.)

In attendance at various times during the past week of testimony were: Police Chief Ray Schultz, who sat in for some of Lampiris-Tremba’s testimony (Schultz himself is not testifying in the case;) attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice (Lampiris-Tremba’s shooting of Ellis was the among the first in a string that, to a large extent, prompted a massive federal civil rights investigation of APD, as well as several federal criminal investigations;) former APD officer John Doyle, who was fired in late 2011 after an incident in which he kicked a fleeing suspect in the head several times (the incident was caught on video;) several local civil rights attorneys; Lampiris-Tremba’s parents; Mike Gomez, whose son was killed by an APD officer in 2011 (Gomez has filed a lawsuit against APD;)  and members of Ellis’ family, including his father, who has become a vocal and ubiquitous APD critic in the three years since his son was killed.

Others testifying in the case:

  • Former APD Sgt. Tom Grover, who was a certified Crisis Intervention Team member before he resigned in 2011. Grover testified that specialized crisis training for APD officers dropped off significantly in 2007 and 2008. APD attorney Levy disputed Grover’s claims.
  • James Murphy, a military buddy of Kenneth Ellis III, who named his son “Kenneth” after “the man who saved my life twice in Iraq.”
  • Hassan Bilal, Ellis’ welding instructor at Job Corps and his chess partner. Ellis gave the Purple Heart he received after Iraq to Bilal.

 

 

 

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