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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.”

GDPR

  • Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy

Effective date: January 06, 2019

Force Science Institute, Ltd. (“us”, “we”, or “our”) operates the https://www.forcescience.org/ website (hereinafter referred to as the “Service”).

This page informs you of our policies regarding the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data when you use our Service and the choices you have associated with that data. Our Privacy Policy for Force Science Institute, Ltd. is based on the Privacy Policy Template from Privacy Policies.

We use your data to provide and improve the Service. By using the Service, you agree to the collection and use of information in accordance with this policy. Unless otherwise defined in this Privacy Policy, the terms used in this Privacy Policy have the same meanings as in our Terms and Conditions, accessible from https://www.forcescience.org/

Information Collection And Use

We collect several different types of information for various purposes to provide and improve our Service to you.

Types of Data Collected

Personal Data

While using our Service, we may ask you to provide us with certain personally identifiable information that can be used to contact or identify you (“Personal Data”). Personally identifiable information may include, but is not limited to:

  • Email address
  • First name and last name
  • Phone number
  • Address, State, Province, ZIP/Postal code, City
  • Cookies and Usage Data

Usage Data

We may also collect information on how the Service is accessed and used (“Usage Data”). This Usage Data may include information such as your computer’s Internet Protocol address (e.g. IP address), browser type, browser version, the pages of our Service that you visit, the time and date of your visit, the time spent on those pages, unique device identifiers and other diagnostic data.

Tracking & Cookies Data

We use cookies and similar tracking technologies to track the activity on our Service and hold certain information.

Cookies are files with small amount of data which may include an anonymous unique identifier. Cookies are sent to your browser from a website and stored on your device. Tracking technologies also used are beacons, tags, and scripts to collect and track information and to improve and analyze our Service.

You can instruct your browser to refuse all cookies or to indicate when a cookie is being sent. However, if you do not accept cookies, you may not be able to use some portions of our Service. You can learn more how to manage cookies in the Browser Cookies Guide.

Examples of Cookies we use:

  • Session Cookies. We use Session Cookies to operate our Service.
  • Preference Cookies. We use Preference Cookies to remember your preferences and various settings.
  • Security Cookies. We use Security Cookies for security purposes.

Use of Data

Force Science Institute, Ltd. uses the collected data for various purposes:

  • To provide and maintain the Service
  • To notify you about changes to our Service
  • To allow you to participate in interactive features of our Service when you choose to do so
  • To provide customer care and support
  • To provide analysis or valuable information so that we can improve the Service
  • To monitor the usage of the Service
  • To detect, prevent and address technical issues

Transfer Of Data

Your information, including Personal Data, may be transferred to — and maintained on — computers located outside of your state, province, country or other governmental jurisdiction where the data protection laws may differ than those from your jurisdiction.

If you are located outside United States and choose to provide information to us, please note that we transfer the data, including Personal Data, to United States and process it there.

Your consent to this Privacy Policy followed by your submission of such information represents your agreement to that transfer.

Force Science Institute, Ltd. will take all steps reasonably necessary to ensure that your data is treated securely and in accordance with this Privacy Policy and no transfer of your Personal Data will take place to an organization or a country unless there are adequate controls in place including the security of your data and other personal information.

Disclosure Of Data

Legal Requirements

Force Science Institute, Ltd. may disclose your Personal Data in the good faith belief that such action is necessary to:

  • To comply with a legal obligation
  • To protect and defend the rights or property of Force Science Institute, Ltd.
  • To prevent or investigate possible wrongdoing in connection with the Service
  • To protect the personal safety of users of the Service or the public
  • To protect against legal liability

Security Of Data

The security of your data is important to us, but remember that no method of transmission over the Internet, or method of electronic storage is 100% secure. While we strive to use commercially acceptable means to protect your Personal Data, we cannot guarantee its absolute security.

Service Providers

We may employ third party companies and individuals to facilitate our Service (“Service Providers”), to provide the Service on our behalf, to perform Service-related services or to assist us in analyzing how our Service is used.

These third parties have access to your Personal Data only to perform these tasks on our behalf and are obligated not to disclose or use it for any other purpose.

Analytics

We may use third-party Service Providers to monitor and analyze the use of our Service.

  • Google AnalyticsGoogle Analytics is a web analytics service offered by Google that tracks and reports website traffic. Google uses the data collected to track and monitor the use of our Service. This data is shared with other Google services. Google may use the collected data to contextualize and personalize the ads of its own advertising network.You can opt-out of having made your activity on the Service available to Google Analytics by installing the Google Analytics opt-out browser add-on. The add-on prevents the Google Analytics JavaScript (ga.js, analytics.js, and dc.js) from sharing information with Google Analytics about visits activity.For more information on the privacy practices of Google, please visit the Google Privacy & Terms web page: https://policies.google.com/privacy?hl=en

Links To Other Sites

Our Service may contain links to other sites that are not operated by us. If you click on a third party link, you will be directed to that third party’s site. We strongly advise you to review the Privacy Policy of every site you visit.

We have no control over and assume no responsibility for the content, privacy policies or practices of any third party sites or services.

Children’s Privacy

Our Service does not address anyone under the age of 18 (“Children”).

We do not knowingly collect personally identifiable information from anyone under the age of 18. If you are a parent or guardian and you are aware that your Children has provided us with Personal Data, please contact us. If we become aware that we have collected Personal Data from children without verification of parental consent, we take steps to remove that information from our servers.

Changes To This Privacy Policy

We may update our Privacy Policy from time to time. We will notify you of any changes by posting the new Privacy Policy on this page.

We will let you know via email and/or a prominent notice on our Service, prior to the change becoming effective and update the “effective date” at the top of this Privacy Policy.

You are advised to review this Privacy Policy periodically for any changes. Changes to this Privacy Policy are effective when they are posted on this page.

Contact Us

If you have any questions about this Privacy Policy, please contact us:

  • By email: [email protected]
  • By visiting this page on our website: https://www.forcescience.org/contact
  • By phone number: 866-683-1944
  • By mail: Force Science Institute, Ltd.