FSRC Turns The Light Of Science On Another “Unjustified” Shooting

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The first time Robert Murtha fired his gun on duty was to kill a rabid skunk. The next time, he was shooting to stop another kind of skunk, some would say, a criminal fugitive and career drug dealer who Murtha claimed was trying to run him down with a car.

But that time it was Murtha who ended up skunked, brought to trial by a zealous prosecutor on charges of first-degree assault, falsifying a police report and fabricating physical evidence, 2 felonies and a misdemeanor. His department fired him and he took work as a gym trainer to support himself while the case dragged through nearly 4 years of legal delays and he worried over the prospect of up to 26 years behind bars.

Last month [10/19/06] a jury quickly absolved the 36-year-old Murtha of any criminal wrongdoing. He still doesn’t have his cop job back, but he’s not in prison, thanks in part to help from the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

“This case illustrates how behavioral science can be relevant to officer performance and memory in controversial shootings,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, FSRC’s executive director. “And it underscores the importance of prosecutors and investigators understanding the true dynamics of high-stress confrontations when judging the circumstances.”

Murtha’s fateful shooting took place on a bitterly cold and snowy Super Bowl Sunday night, Jan. 26, 2003, in Hartford, CT. Close to midnight, another officer, Michael Cacioli, had stopped a couple of possible suspects after a radio call about 7 men, possibly “with guns and drugs,” in a housing project. Murtha, a 4-year veteran of Hartford PD, pulled up with other officers as backup.

During the stop, one of the suspects began walking away. Another jumped into the driver’s seat of a red Pontiac Bonneville with tinted windows, later found to be stolen. As Cacioli went after the walk-away and held him at gunpoint, the Bonneville bounced over a snow-covered curb and sped off down a 2-lane street. Murtha and Ofcr. Leonard Grissette pursued in separate squad cars.

By the time they caught up, the Bonneville had spun out on the slippery pavement and thrown its rear end into a snowbank. Murtha stopped his squad astraddle the street’s center line, roughly opposite the front of the Bonneville. He leaped out with his S&W Model 4506 in hand and hurried around the front of his unit. Grissette stopped about 2 car lengths behind him, closer to the curb.

The Bonneville’s driver, later identified as Elvin Gonzalez, 21, was in no mood to surrender. Revving the motor and spinning the tires, he managed to wrench the car free of the snow and bolted it forward.

Murtha was on the front right of his unit, and the suspect car was rapidly accelerating “directly toward me,” he said later. Fearing for his life, he claimed, he fired 3 fast rounds. The Bonneville did not stop. Gaining traction on the pavement, it angled to the right and roared off down the dimly lit street.

Murtha ran after it for a few steps, then fell to the pavement with an injured left knee. Gonzalez was quickly captured by other officers after again losing control of the car and crashing it into a fence. He’d been shot twice through and through his upper left bicep. He turned out to be unarmed.

“I don’t need guns,” he declared. “I’ll fight you with my bare hands. You crooked Hartford cops shot me ’cause I have warrants.” But his combativeness faded and he was taken into custody without violence.

Murtha’s knee, scraped, bruised and strained, was sore enough that it temporarily pained him to stand, but he was not seriously hurt. However, he was soon beset with significant other problems.

In a radio transmission immediately after firing the 3 shots, he’d exclaimed that the Bonneville “almost ran me over. I’m OK.” But then, moments later when officers were giving him first aid for his hurt knee, he told them that the car actually hit him, thus accounting for the injury.

A police association lawyer who showed up after the shooting advised Murtha not to give a formal statement until he’d had a chance to “rest and collect his thoughts,” having “just been in a traumatic incident.” An EMT who tended him noted he was “very visibly shaken and had difficulty talking. His hands were shaking, his voice unsteady.” Plus he was fatigued; the shooting had occurred on the second shift he’d worked that day.

But Murtha said he wanted to get the statement out of the way while details were “fresh in my mind.” And he felt pressure to do so from department investigators, he added. So he did, repeating that the car came at him and hit him in the knee as Gonzalez fled.

The next day, videotape from the other unit that had pulled up when the car was stuck in the snowbank clearly showed that the Bonneville had not struck Murtha. Moreover, the tape showed Murtha firing into the driver’s closed, tinted window as the car drove past him, contradicting his claim that the car had been zooming directly toward him when he shot.

It didn’t take long for authorities to conclude that Murtha was lying and the shooting was unjustified.

No counts were brought against Gonzalez, although he did serve time on the outstanding warrant. Within a month of his release he was arrested for violating federal drug and gun laws and sentenced to prison for 10 years.

Murtha was charged as a felon and bounced off the force. State’s Attorney James Thomas, a “no-nonsense” 26-year veteran prosecutor, would say later that the “system is doomed” if cops can make false reports about citizens with impunity.

A newspaper columnist in print flatly called Murtha “a wild exaggerator at best, a liar at worst” who had “needlessly juiced up his story to validate the shooting.” (Ironically, that writer later approached the fired officer at the gym where he got work as a personal trainer and asked him for free workout tips, not realizing who he was.)

Murtha was “completely stunned” when he was notified of the charges. His bewilderment was intensified by the facts that he’d been personal friends with the investigations lieutenant who signed the arrest warrant against him and that the state’s attorney declined to listen to him explain in person his version of events.

When Murtha’s case finally came to trial before a Superior Court jury of 6, a key witness called by defense attorneys Huge Keefe and Michael Georgetti was FSRC’s founder and head researcher, Bill Lewinski. Lewinski had reviewed the circumstances of the shooting, interviewed Murtha and checked into his background, and become convinced he was “telling the truth as he perceived it.”

During some 2 hours on the stand, Lewinski, a behavioral psychologist, explained in lay terms how nuances of human memory and research findings by FSRC could offer a plausible explanation of the case’s disturbing discrepancies.

Regarding the placement of the shot that wounded Gonzalez, Lewinski pointed out that FSRC research has confirmed that it takes time for an officer to perceive and process a threat, time for him to then start shooting and time for him to perceive and process a change in threat level and stop shooting.

Thus, if Murtha initially perceived that the Bonneville was coming at him at an accelerating speed and reacted to defend himself, given his reaction time the vehicle should easily have altered direction and moved on far enough for his rounds to impact from the side before he could register the change of direction and stop shooting.

The dim ambient lighting at the scene and the glare of the car’s headlights as it lurched forward would only have added to Murtha’s perception that the vehicle had him targeted when he made the decision to shoot, Lewinski contended.

As to Murtha’s “lying” about being hit by the car, Lewinski noted that the officer first radioed that he had “almost” been struck. It wasn’t until after he fell with his hurt knee that he alleged he was struck. Lewinski’s study of human memory convinced him that this sequencing was critical.

After a traumatic event, he explained, survivors tend to remember what happened leading up to and during the incident only in chunks, not in a continuous start-to-finish stream. But the human mind doesn’t well tolerate unknowns in such circumstances, so people tend to “fill in the gaps” with logical extrapolations so that the memory of the event “makes sense.” Then they believe their logical constructions to be genuine memories because that “must be what happened.”

Murtha’s knee might have been hurt as he banged it against his door exiting his unit, or he might have knocked it against the bumper as he rounded the front. To this day, nobody knows for sure. Murtha at the time would have been so focused on confronting the suspect that he wouldn’t have consciously registered the injury, Lewinski said.

But later, when he recognized he was hurt after radioing that he’d “almost” been hit and was OK, it’s likely that he “filled that gap” by concluding-and believing-that the car struck him. Not a deliberate fabrication, as the prosecution insisted, but a “perfect example” of a memory trick.

Using videos that he critiques in his Force Science seminars, Lewinski showed the jury startling examples of how “inattentional blindness” can cause people to look at but not register seeing important elements in the midst of complex, highly stressful situations. This phenomenon could account for the fact that while Murtha believed the car hit him, he did not have a memory of seeing it actually do so.

Reginald Allard Jr., an instructor who had taught Murtha use of force at Connecticut’s POST academy, said later that Lewinski’s “testimony on the psycho-dynamics of officer-involved shooting was pivotal” to the case.

Murtha’s “victim,” Elvin Gonzalez, was not called to the stand by the prosecution, but in a courtroom masterstroke, the officer’s attorneys had him brought in from prison as a witness for the defense. He allegedly told one or more inmates that he had tried to kill an officer.

Despite a veneer of politeness Gonzalez couldn’t cover up what he is. A high school dropout enamored of street life and drug dealing, he admitted that he tried to escape from police the night he was shot because he was wanted on an arrest warrant for fleeing from a half-way house. He’d been drunk on beer and high on pot that night and, yeah, he’d pointed a gun at somebody before. A tattoo on one of his arms showed a character carrying a gun, with the words “Stick-up Kid.” Attorney Keefe called him a “monster.”

When Murtha took the stand in his own defense, the contrast was inescapable. First in his working-class family to graduate from a university, Murtha had also ranked near the top of his academy class. While serving as an officer, he worked his way through law school and passed the bar exam. He’d taken a 30% pay cut to come to Hartford PD from another department because he wanted to serve the city he lived in. A Bible class student, he drew praise from people whose community he policed and commendations from the brass.

“He’s well-trained, intelligent, courageous, a ‘poster boy’ officer of immense character, not given to impulsive action or panic,” Lewinski told Force Science News. Eating crow, the columnist who’d vilified Murtha said the contrast in the 2 witnesses was “a case of Good Egg vs. Bad Apple.”

After 8 days of testimony, the jury in just over 4 hours returned the verdict Rob Murtha had waited 45 months to hear: not guilty on all counts. One of the jurors expressed the sentiment of the group. “He was dealing with a dangerous criminal and had only a split second to make his decision. I’ll tell you this: I don’t think I could do the job that officers like Murtha do every day.”

Despite his law degree, Murtha is eager to hit the streets again in uniform. At this writing, his application for reinstatement is working its way through the appeals process and is expected to be approved.

Murtha told Force Science News that some people wonder why he’d want to go back to policing when he could practice law. “It may sound corny,” he says, “but I’ve always loved the job. I was born to be a police officer.”

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