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'My heart just dropped.' $4 verdict shocks family of man killed by police

The jury awarded $1 for funeral expenses and $1 each to Gregory Vaughn Hill Jr.'s three children, aged 7, 10 and 13.
Image: Gregory Hill Jr. and Monique Davis with with their daughters Destiny Hill, left, and Aryanna Hill, right.
Gregory Vaughn Hill Jr. and Monique Davis with their daughters Destiny Hill, left, and Aryanna Hill, right.Courtesy family lawyer

Four dollars.

When Monique Davis heard that was the amount a jury believed her fiancee's mother and three children deserved for his death in a police shooting, she didn't bother to listen to the rest of the verdict. She walked out of the courtroom, shaken.

"My heart just dropped," Davis recalled. "It was like, are y'all serious?"

Four years earlier, her fiancee, Gregory Vaughn Hill Jr., who was black, had been shot behind his closing garage door by Christopher Newman, a white Florida sheriff's deputy responding with a partner to a complaint of loud music. A grand jury declined to indict Newman, who said Hill had pulled a gun. Hill was found with an unloaded gun in his back pocket.

Hill's mother then filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Newman and his boss, St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara. The case went to trial this month, and on May 24 a jury cleared Newman, assigned a small bit of blame to Mascara and said Hill was almost entirely at fault because he was drunk.

The jury tallied up the damages: $1 for funeral expenses to Hill's mother, and $1 each to Hill's three children, aged 7, 10 and 13.

The decision astonished the family's lawyer, John Phillips.

"I'd have rather seen a zero than have to tell the children that their pain and suffering for losing their father is only a dollar," he said Thursday.

Which is what the family will probably get in the end.

Because the jury assigned just 1 percent of negligence to Mascara, that $4 in damages was automatically reduced to 4 cents, Phillips said. But even that was made irrelevant by the jury's finding that Hill's intoxication made him 99 percent negligent. In doing so, the jury effectively erased any damages, Phillips said.

That convoluted verdict left Phillips wondering whether the jury, after about 10 hours of deliberations, understood what it was doing — and if so, whether the jurors saw the damage amount as some sort of punishment.

"Either it was punitive or they viewed these children's pain as virtually worthless," Phillips said.

Answers to those questions may never come. None of the jurors has spoken publicly, and they are not required to justify their verdict.

Newman and his partner, Deputy Edward Lopez, responded to Hill's Fort Pierce home on Jan. 14, 2014 after someone from a school across the street called to complain of loud music, police have said. The deputies knocked, and Hill, 30, on disability leave from a Coca-Cola warehouse, pulled open the garage door. Seeing the officers, he started to close the door — and pulled out a gun, police said. Newman opened fire, his bullets piercing the door. Hill was found dead inside with an unloaded gun in his back pocket.

Phillips disputed that Hill raised the gun toward the officers, questioning how the weapon ended up in his back pocket before he died.

Phillips is preparing file a motion for a new trial, based on what he says were inconsistencies in the way Hill's gun was used as evidence during the trial, and prosecutors' revealing that Hill had been on probation at the time of the shooting for a drug charge.

After the verdict, Mascara released a statement saying his office was "pleased to see this difficult and tragic incident come to a conclusion." Newman, he added, "was placed in a very difficult situation, and like so many law enforcement officers must do every day, he made the best decision he could given the circumstances he faced."

Lawyers who represented Newman and Mascara did not respond to a request for comment.

Davis, 35, has been raising Hill's three children — the two oldest of whom she had with him — with her boyfriend.

After last week's verdict, she went home, and for two days could hardly get out of bed, wondering how she was going to explain it to the kids. She finally tried, and she said the children were struggling with it in their own ways.

Davis wants the police to admit they did something wrong, that they reacted too quickly, and she wants them to change the way they handle such situations.

"I won’t give up until proper justice is served," she said.

How that might happen, she isn't sure.