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'Friendly fire' case verdict overturned by appeals court

Says jury should hear R.I. lawsuit

PROVIDENCE -- A federal appeals court yesterday said a jury should hear civil rights claims against the city for the friendly-fire death of a black police officer, overturning a judge's decision to dismiss the case.

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston said that US District Judge Mary Lisi should have allowed a jury to decide if the city was responsible for poorly training a police officer involved in the shooting death of Sergeant Cornel Young, Jr.

Young was off-duty and in plainclothes when he tried to assist fellow officers with a disturbance outside a diner on Jan. 28, 2000. Two white police officers, supervisor Carlos Saraiva and rookie officer Michael Solitro, mistook Young for a suspect and fatally shot him after he failed to drop his weapon.

In November 2003, Lisi threw out the lawsuit filed by Young's mother, Leisa Young, rejecting the lawsuit's contention that the police department's deficient hiring and training contributed to Young's death.

The appeals court found that Lisi was wrong to have taken the case away from the jury, saying a jury could find that the police department should have known such a shooting was a ''predictable consequence" of its failure to train how on- and off-duty officers should interact.

Therefore, a jury could find, ''the department was deliberately indifferent to Cornel's constitutional rights," the court said.

The case will be sent back for trial in Providence on the claim that the city failed to properly train Solitro.

Solitro and Saraiva were cleared by a state grand jury of any criminal wrongdoing. They also were cleared of federal civil-rights violations by the US Attorney's Office.

Kevin McHugh, Providence's senior assistant city solicitor, said the city was prepared for the new trial and noted that the issue before the court will be much narrower than at the 2003 trial.

In the lawsuit, Young's mother had sought $20 million in damages, claiming that haphazard training and hiring by the department led to her son's death.

In the first phase of the trial, the all-white jury decided that Solitro, an eight-day rookie, violated Young's civil rights, but Saraiva did not.

The appeals court affirmed those findings and also let stand Lisi's decision to dismiss Leisa Young's claims regarding hiring, the training of both Saraiva and her son, and supervisors' disciplining of Saraiva. A message left at Leisa Young's home was not immediately returned.

In a related decision yesterday, the appeals court overturned Lisi's finding that two lawyers for Young's mother violated the rules of the court. The appeals court removed the sanctions imposed on attorneys Nick Brustin and Barry Scheck and reinstated their permission to practice in Rhode Island.

Lisi had tossed Scheck and Brustin off the case, saying they had misrepresented facts in documents. Scheck, a prominent lawyer known for his defense of O. J. Simpson when the former football star stood trial for his wife's murder, and Brustin were based in New York. Their removal left Providence lawyer Robert Mann to continue the case on his own.

A message left for Scheck was not returned.

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