It may still be about two years before some resolution comes to the issue, but the family of a slain Southaven man mistakenly shot and killed by two police officers has brought their case to a federal court.
Ismael Lopez was shot and killed by the officers at his Surrey Lane residence in July 2017, when the officers were looking for a suspect in a domestic assault case from Tate County.
Zachary Durden and Samuel Maze appeared at the Lopez door, thinking they were at the home of Samuel Pearman, but when Lopez answered, a disturbance started at the doorway that ended with Lopez being shot.
Pearman was the man police were trying to apprehend on the Tate County assault charges.
On investigation, a grand jury determined it would not issue criminal charges against the police officers involved in the shooting. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Department of Justice also reviewed the case.
Thursday, however, a federal wrongful death lawsuit was filed to U.S. District Court in Oxford on behalf of Lopez’s wife Claudia Linares and the Lopez estate. It asks for $8 million in actual and compensatory damages, $12 million for gross negligence, reckless and/or willful acts or omissions, as well as $25,000 to cover funeral costs.
Lopez family attorneys Murray Wells and Aaron Neglia held a news conference in Memphis Thursday afternoon and said they are requesting a jury trial.
Wells said it could be a year of depositions to gather testimony ahead of a trial date with a final decision still some time after that.
“We’re going to speak to the former police chief (Pirtle) and we’re going to speak to both of the officers,” Wells said. “We’re going to speak to the policymakers for the City of Southaven and the Southaven Police Department. We’re going to understand about all of the problems with the police department in the past that led us to what we believe is a massive tragedy.”
Evidence from both sides has been contradictory. At the time of the shooting, it was reported that Lopez was shot after officers reported seeing the rifle barrel of a weapon protrude from the door. Investigators were also told that a dog had lunged out of the house and moved on Maze, who fired at it. It was reported Durden then told Lopez to put the rifle down and fired several rounds through the door.
Wells and Neglia differ on that account, however. They said their findings are that Lopez did not provoke the shooting.
“There is no argument to be made that Mr. Lopez asked for this, encouraged it or in any way had engagement with the law,” Wells said. “He’s not on the street, he’s not mistaken for a suspect, they don’t try to apprehend him. They just went to his house and killed the man. This could happen to anybody.”
In the lawsuit, Wells and Neglia state the arrest warrant for Pearman was not signed until the day after Lopez had been shot. Maze and Durden came to the Lopez home without an arrest warrant, the lawsuit states.
It was pointed out Pearman lives in a house with the house number clearly evident, while Lopez was in a mobile trailer home. The suit also describes other discrepancies between what they determined through the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI) report and what was earlier being released on the case.
“We have enough inconsistencies in what the MBI investigation revealed versus the statements of the officers on what happened that night,” said Wells. “We think there are real problems for the other side.”
Wells said the burden of proof for the Lopez family is less through this avenue in the court system.
“It is substantially less than a criminal trial,” Wells said. “Here, we just have a preponderance of the evidence, meaning it was more likely than not that the civil rights of Ismael Lopez were violated when the officers shot him in the back of the head.”
Southaven Mayor Darren Musselwhite’s office released a statement after Wells and Neglia announced their lawsuit.
“Last year, a DeSoto County grand jury reviewed all facts of this incident and made a decision to not indict any of our Southaven police officers,” Musselwhite said in the statement. “In addition, this matter was investigated by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice, which also cleared the City of Southaven police officers. We are ready to vigorously defend our officers and City in a court of law in this matter.”
Bob Bakken is Managing Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune.