There will be no federal charges against three police officers who repeatedly tased a man outside a Virginia hospital in May 2013, the Department of Justice announced Thursday.
The man, Linwood Lambert, died in police custody after the officers discharged their Tasers a total of 20 times, while he was shackled — in violation of local rules and federal guidelines.
And Lambert was never arrested for a crime: Police had offered him a ride to the hospital for medical care, after he was found acting erratically at a hotel.
“Federal prosecutors and FBI agents determined that there was insufficient evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that officers Bratton, Clay and Mann acted willfully with a bad purpose to violate federal law,” the Justice Department explained in a two-page statement.
Police video showed the officers repeatedly tasing Lambert after his arms and legs were shackled, and while he was restrained in a patrol car. Some law enforcement experts said that conduct constituted excessive force and was potentially illegal.
The new Justice Department statement described those tasings as potentially justified, however, siding with the officers’ argument that the use of force was acceptable.
“There is no reliable evidence to contradict the assertion that the officers tased Lambert at the hospital door for a legitimate law enforcement purpose, namely to gain control of an individual they perceived as non-compliant and behaving erratically,” the statement reads.
“There is no reliable evidence to contradict the assertion that the officers tased Lambert in the patrol car,” the statement continues, “in order to prevent him from causing further damage to the vehicle and to gain his compliance to transport him to jail.”
In the video, Lambert is slumped down and appears barely conscious during some of those tasings.
Tom Sweeney, a lawyer representing Lambert’s sister in a civil case against the officers, expressed outrage on Thursday at the feds' decision.
“This is the type of decision which reflects why a large segment of the population has frustrations,” Sweeney told NBC News. “Even when you have such horrible conduct, caught on videotape, law enforcement doesn’t do anything about it,” he asserted.
In May, local prosecutors decided not to pursue any charges in the case, meaning the federal inquiry was the only potential avenue left for criminal accountability.
“If you can’t bring this case, with this videotape — you can’t bring any case against an officer,” Sweeney said.
Gwendolyn Smalls, Lambert’s sister, told NBC News she disagreed with the decision but appreciated the fact that the federal government conducted an independent inquiry.
“I’m upset that there won’t be an federal civil rights charges being filed against the officers,” Smalls said, “but we are happy that we didn’t have to rely on just the state to tell us what happened to my brother.”
Smalls, who has led local marches and sued the police department, vowed to continue working on police reform.
“We are very heartbroken, we were hoping for something different,” she said, “but we are going to continue to fight for justice for my brother in ways that might help someone else to avoid going through what we’re going through.”
The federal inquiry was opened after the local case languished for over two years without any resolution, and after the police videos, first reported by MSNBC, showed what happened in the incident for the first time.
The local inquiry included tensions between local prosecutors and the state policy agency conducting the investigation, and internal records, obtained by MSNBC, suggested the officers involved in the tasings misled investigators, alleging conduct by Lambert that was contradicted by the video.
The three officers maintained their innocence, backed by police leadership in South Boston, Virgina, and argued that the tasings and conduct was necessary to restrain a potentially dangerous person in custody. An autopsy also stated Lambert’s death was caused by acute cocaine intoxication, not the impact of the tasings.
The Justice Department, which is currently conducting several civil rights inquiries regarding police-involved fatalities, emphasized in its statement that the decision not to prosecute the three officers was limited to federal criminal culpability, not a wider assessment of their conduct.
“The federal review of this incident has been closed without prosecution,” the statement explained, “This decision is limited strictly to an application of the high legal standard required to prosecute the case under the federal civil rights statute; it does not reflect an assessment of any other aspect of the incident that led to Lambert’s death.”