A DEA special agent and former township SWAT officer who was indicted for first-degree manslaughter after killing a suspect who was fighting to grab the officer’s gun has been vindicated by a federal appeals court, thanks in part to studies by the Force Science Research Center.
A grand jury in Brooklyn (NY) indicted the agent, Jude Tanella, in circumstances that DEA administrator Karen Tandy says “could happen to any police officer or federal agent attempting to make an arrest.”
Tanella, a SWAT officer for the Township of Old Bridge (NJ) P.D. before joining the feds, was part of an anti-drug team that boxed in the car of a suspected coke dealer during a daylight arrest attempt at a busy intersection in New York City. The suspect rammed his way free and swerved wildly onto pedestrian walkways in flight through the congested neighborhood before finally crashing his vehicle between a telephone pole and a fire hydrant. He then took off on foot, holding tight to a plastic bag filled with 3 kilos of cocaine.
With service weapon drawn, Tanella pursued, continually shouting “Police!” and ordering the suspect to stop. After about 400 feet the suspect tripped trying to dodge between 2 parked cars, and fell to the street. Gun still in hand, Tanella swooped in to collar him.
The suspect, “who was significantly taller and heavier than Tanella, violently resisted,” Tandy says. “After punching Tanella numerous times, [he] shoved the agent and knocked him off balance, onto his hands and knees. At that point, Tanella saw [the suspect] reach for Tanella’s gun. Fearing for his life, Tanella fired one shot, striking [the suspect] in the lower right side of his back.” The drug dealer was DOA at the hospital less than 30 minutes later.
No one in the crowd that formed to watch all this had been willing to call for help on Tanella’s behalf, but several were quite willing to volunteer accounts that Tandy characterizes as “clearly inaccurate or intentionally false.” One key witness, for example, testified before a special grand jury that the suspect was already handcuffed when Tanella shot him, an accusation that the DA’s office later conceded was a lie. “It is unknown whether that error was ever brought to the grand jury’s attention,” Tandy observes dryly.
In any case, Tanella’s insistence that he believed he was in imminent lethal danger and shot only in self defense was brushed aside and he was charged criminally. The DA’s office argued that the placement of Tanella’s round in the side of the suspect’s back suggested that the suspect was attempting to flee when shot, making the deliberate use of deadly force illegal.
Tanella’s attorneys succeeded in removing the case to federal court. The federal district judge accepted Tanella’s version of events and dismissed the charge against him as unwarranted. The DA’s office, however, doggedly appealed the decision.
During the appeal, an amicus curiae [friend of the court] brief was prepared for the justices by the law enforcement-related legal and educational organization Americans for Effective Law Enforcement and the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police. This brief prominently presented the results of landmark studies by Dr. William Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center [FSRC] at Minnesota State University-Mankato, which have scientifically addressed the physical dynamics of suspects shot in the back.
As Force Science News readers are aware, Lewinski has documented that suspects who are presenting a frontal threat can easily end up shot in the back because they can turn away in the split second between the time an officer makes the irretractable decision to shoot and the time his round(s) actually impact.
As Lewinski was quoted in the brief, “[T]he time it takes for an officer to process visual stimuli and then to react to a person’s threat is a longer period than the suspect’s turning actions.”
After reviewing the brief, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd circuit last summer unanimously affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the manslaughter charge against Agent Tanella. Rejecting the DA’s position that Tanella acted wantonly and with criminal intent, the court ruled that under “tense and perilous circumstances,” the agent “honestly believed his life to be in danger and…his belief was objectively reasonable.”
After a 2-year struggle, Tandy declares, Agent Tanella’s nightmare proved ultimately to be a “story of injustice defeated.”
The Tanella case is cited as: New York v. Tanella, 374 F.3d 141 (2nd Cir. June 30, 2004.)