Officer Jim Knight takes the stand to defend his actions on the night in 1996 he killed TyRon Lewis.
By LEANORA MINAI
Published May 12, 2004
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
In the second day of a wrongful-death case trial, St. Petersburg Officer Jim Knight demonstrates how he went to the front of the car TyRon Lewis was driving with his gun drawn, pointed down.
ST. PETERSBURG - Officer Jim Knight said he tried everything.
He told the driver of a car stopped for speeding to roll down the tinted car window. Unlock the door. Shut off the engine.
That didn't work, Knight said, so he moved in front of TyRon Lewis' car and repeated the demands. But Lewis bumped Knight six times, knocking Knight onto the car hood and into the path of oncoming traffic.
"I put my finger on the trigger, and I fired," Knight told six jurors hearing evidence Tuesday in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city.
Lawyers for Lewis' mother, Pamela, say Knight didn't do enough to avoid the fatal shooting, which sparked two nights of civil disturbances in 1996. Lewis was black; Knight and his partner were white.
Questioning during the second day of the trial centered on whether Knight broke police rules on traffic stops and whether he exhausted alternatives before firing three times during the 55-second confrontation.
"My point is, officer, didn't you have an option to simply move out of the way?" asked Lewis family attorney Michael Lewis, who is not related to the family.
Among the issues the jury will consider are whether Knight negligently used his firearm and whether Lewis, 18, contributed to his own death by not obeying police commands during the Oct. 24, 1996, traffic stop.
Knight's partner, Officer Sandra Minor, testified Tuesday she did not see Knight get bumped onto the hood and did not see the shooting. But Minor defended Knight, telling jurors, "I probably would have done the same thing."
When Knight was disciplined after the shooting, his supervisors, including police Maj. Cedric Gordon, said Knight could have backed away from the car as he was bumped.
Supervisors said Knight violated policy that says officers may discharge a firearm "when other reasonable means to avoid the danger have failed."
In a blow to the Lewis family's case, Judge Horace A. Andrews did not allow lawyers for the family to question Gordon about why he recommended that Knight be fired.
Gordon, one of the department's top black supervisors, also was not permitted to explain the agency's position on whether officers should stand in front of cars during traffic stops. In a 1999 deposition in the lawsuit, Gordon said officers are taught not to stand in front of cars. He also said then it would have been preferable for the officers to have let Lewis go.
Knight and Minor were riding together in a squad car and stopped Lewis for speeding at a red light at 18th Avenue S and 16th Street.
The officers said Lewis and his passenger, Eugene Young, did not roll down their windows, unlock their doors or get out of the stolen Pontiac LeMans. Knight has said Lewis bumped his legs six times with the car during the incident.
The officers separately re-enacted the shooting in the courtroom, using the defense table for Lewis' car.
Standing in the middle of the courtroom, Minor cupped her hands around her face to show jurors how she tried to see through the driver's window.
"I can see the driver leaning forward with his hands on the steering wheel, shaking his head no," Minor said. "I can see his gold teeth."
Minor demonstrated how she struck a side window with her metal police baton, shattering a hole too small for her to reach in and unlock the car. She also struck the driver's window, but it did not shatter.
When she struck the windows, Knight was in front of the car, which lurched forward twice, bumping Knight onto the hood.
Minor said she did not see Knight get knocked onto the hood or the shooting. "I got out of the way of the car," Minor said.
"You used another alternative in this situation other than shooting TyRon Lewis?" asked Jean Laws Scott, another lawyer who represents the Lewis family.
Knight said that before he shot Lewis, he cursed and told him to stop or he would shoot. But Lewis bumped him onto the hood and moved the car "into oncoming traffic."
"At any point in this, if he would have complied," Knight said, "we would not be here today."