- Last Updated on 12:16 PM 03/26/12
- BY Doug Ford
The attorney representing the family of Randolph Neal Seamster in the wrongful death civil lawsuit against a Halifax County deputy indicated Friday the suit may never have been brought had the family thought the investigation into the shooting death of Seamster had been handled properly.
M. Bryan Slaughter, a Charlottesville attorney representing the Seamster estate, said the Seamster family wanted “some accountability” brought to the situation and wanted to have Neal Seamster’s name cleared.
A Halifax County Circuit Court jury awarded $400,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages to Seamster’s estate Thursday after a three-day civil trial.
The estate of Seamster filed a $5.35 million wrongful death lawsuit in Halifax County Circuit Court in November of 2008 alleging that Thomas Lewis, an investigator with the Halifax/South Boston Regional Narcotics and Gang Task Force, acted negligently and committed assault and battery when he fatally shot Seamster, a Pelham, N.C., resident in the parking lot of Sheetz in Riverdale on July 2, 2008.
Seamster died at the scene of the shooting as members of the Halifax, South Boston and State Police Regional Narcotics/Gang Enforcement Task Force were investigating a drug-related matter, which according to Virginia State Police Sgt. David Cooper, “resulted in attempted capital murder of one of the officers.”
“As Angela Seamster said in her testimony she brought the lawsuit because of the video and felt the shooting of Neal was reckless and unjustified,” Slaughter said Friday. Angela Seamster is the victim’s aunt.
“And, she wanted some accountability brought to the situation.”
Following the shooting incident, then Halifax County Sheriff Stanley Noblin requested the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation conduct an investigation into the officer involved in the shooting.
Facts gathered in the investigation of the shooting incident were presented to Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Kim White, and a videotape of the incident was examined by investigators and shown to Seamster’s family.
Investigators Lewis, Mike McGregor and Tracy Mocarsky, along with Agent Mark Campbell were the task force officers involved in the chain of events that transpired over a period of 12 seconds and resulted in Seamster’s death.
White released the surveillance video and a report of her findings the afternoon of Aug. 15, 2008 exonerating the officers.
Slaughter referred to testimony at trial by some of the officers as key to the jury’s findings.
“I thought the key points were that none of the police officers felt they did anything wrong and that they would do the same thing again given the same situation,” said Slaughter.
“The other point was I think we made the point this was a low-speed parking lot incident, where the officers did not need to draw their weapons and escalate the incident, but they did.
“We also felt Tom Lewis placed himself in front of the car and used the danger he created as justification for deadly force.
“Our expert and indeed Thomas Lewis admitted a police officer’s training is that you should not put yourself in front of a vehicle, and if you did, you can’t use that danger to justify deadly force.”
“I think that influenced the jury’s decision, and the jury sent a clear statement with their verdict, one they awarded a fair compensatory award for the family’s loss of Neal,” continued Slaughter.
“Obviously, no amount of money can bring him back.
“With their punitive award, I think they made as strong a statement as they could make that this type of police action is not acceptable in Halifax County.”
The family from the very beginning wanted a fair and thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding Seamster’s death, Slaughter pointed out.
“It is, in our opinion, normal practice for a commonwealth’s attorney to recuse herself from an investigation of officers she works with and bring in a special prosecutor, and she did not do that.”
Slaughter referred to a shooting investigation in Amherst County in 2008, where White was brought in as a special prosecutor.
“So, from what I have seen in these situations, a special prosecutor is appointed, and the family thought that should have been done here,” Slaughter said.
“The report she issued in their opinion was biased and unfair and painted Neal in an extremely unfavorable light.
“They wanted to clear his name.”
Slaughter recalled what Lisa Seamster, Neal’s mother, said to him as they were leaving the courtroom Thursday, that maybe because of her son’s death and the jury’s verdict, something like this wouldn’t happen to another family, “and hopefully change the way police departments train their people or react in similar situations.”
“It was a measure of justice for them,” said Slaughter. “They still grieve tremendously, but they feel there’s been at least some accountability here.”
ttorney Carlene Booth Johnson, who represented Lewis at trial, declined to comment Friday.
Halifax County Sheriff Fred Clark also declined official comment on the case, other than to reaffirm the sheriff’s department’s continued support of Lewis.
Clark also did not comment on the possibility of an appeal.
County may not be liable in lawsuit
Halifax County Administrator George Nester said Friday to his knowledge the county could possibly not be liable for damages resulting from the $1.4 million a Halifax County Circuit Court jury awarded the estate of Randolph Neal Seamster on Thursday.
The jury awarded $400,000 in compensatory damages and $1,000,000 in punitive damages to the estate of Neal, who was shot and killed during an incident at Sheetz in Riverdale on July 2, 2008.
“The constitutional office of the sheriff’s office and his employees are covered by the Department of Risk Management for the state,” said Nester.
“They will be both the ones to defend and be responsible for any liability associated with the incident. In this particular case, the county is out of it in regards to insurance and coverage,” Nester continued.
“The only time it would possibly come into play is some type of requieter or exclusion that the state has, and I’m not aware of that being the case.
“They’re the ones that provided the legal coverage for the sheriff’s department. We don’t know if there’s going to be any liability for the county...we still need to find that out. That’s all we really know about it right now,” Nester said.
The total amount Seamster’s estate would be able to collect, barring a successful appeal in the case, is $750,000, according to M. Bryan Slaughter, who represented the Seamster estate through its administrator Angela Meredith at trial.
“There’s a $350,000 cap on punitive damages in Virginia, so that will be reduced from $1 million to $350,000,” said Slaughter on Friday.
“The total amount we would be able to collect is $750,000.”
Slaughter added it was too early to say whether an appeal would be filed in the case.
“The ball is in the defense’s court on that,” he said.
“The judge has given them 30 days to file motions, and on those motions the court will eventually enter a judgment. From that judgment, they will have 30 days to note an appeal,” Slaughter said.