Court To Hear Appeal On Trooper Shooting

By Justin Anderson, Daily Mail staff

Lawyers for the family of a McDowell County man shot dead by a State Police trooper say a circuit judge wrongly dismissed a lawsuit against the state alleging it condones officers using excessive force.

State Supreme Court justices have unanimously agreed to hear arguments in the appeal of Charles Pruitt's family.

Pruitt's family has sued the State Police and Trooper C. F. Kane for their part in the man's death. An investigation showed Kane fired 14 shots into Pruitt's body in December 2001 while responding to a domestic violence call.

Kane contended that Pruitt was armed at the time he was shot and refused to drop the weapon when ordered.

The family says Kane entered the residence without a warrant and shot Pruitt while he was not armed and had his hands up. A gun was reportedly found near Pruitt, but family members said they believe it was planted.

The family sued for $30 million, alleging constitutional violations and wrongful death.

Kanawha County Circuit Judge Irene Berger last year dismissed the lawsuit as it pertains to the State Police. The claim against Kane is still valid, but is stayed until the Supreme Court irons out the claim against the state.

John Yoder, a Jefferson County lawyer and Republican state senator, is one of two lawyers representing the Pruitts. The other lawyer is Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo.

Yoder said Berger gave no reason for dismissing the wrongful death claim against the state. But lawyers for the State Police had argued the state couldn't be sued over such constitutional issues.

The state also maintains that Kane's actions were "reasonable and justified."

Berger said the plaintiffs hadn't offered up enough information to hold the state liable for violating the Pruitt's constitutional rights against unreasonable force, according to court records.

The plaintiffs want the claim against the state back in place so a jury can decide.

"Our contention is when you give a trooper his gun back on the same day he shoots somebody 14 times ... that's a pattern of the state of condoning and allowing that kind of conduct," Yoder said.

According to court documents, an expert had found that State Police troopers are supposed to be trained to stop firing his or her weapon when a threat stops.

"Here, however, the defendant Kane, who shot Mr. Pruitt 14 times, including shooting him in the back, and who reloaded his gun after firing 12 shots to continue firing at Mr. Pruitt, admitted in deposition that he was never given any training on when to stop firing once he started," the plaintiffs' appeal says.

Yoder said, to his knowledge, Kane continues to be an active State Police trooper. Kane was not indicted for any crimes. The appeal says the State Police never disciplined Kane for his actions.

The two sides paint very different versions of the events leading up to the shooting.

The plaintiffs contend Pruitt did have guns near him because he'd been cleaning them. They also say the domestic violence call Pruitt's daughter placed was false. They say that when Kane arrived, there was no ongoing situation that would have warranted the officer entering the house.

The lawsuit alleges Kane simply opened the door with a knock and started shooting at Pruitt until he was dead. They say Pruitt was sitting on a couch reading a magazine when Kane entered.

When family members emerged from bedrooms to see what was going on, Kane pointed his gun at them, the plaintiffs say.

The state maintains Kane followed proper procedure. Kane ordered Pruitt to drop the gun he was pointing at the door, but he didn't comply, the state says.

The state argues Pruitt got up off the couch and started heading for the door pointing the gun, leaving Kane no choice but to start firing.

The appeal also accuses McDowell County Prosecutor Sid Bell of dissuading a grand jury in 2003 from handing down any charges on Kane.

The plaintiffs say Bell convinced the grand jury that Pruitt's family could get relief from the civil lawsuit they had filed and that any criminal charges would damage Kane's career. They also argue the state reversed this position in Kanawha Circuit Court by contending it or its insurance company couldn't be sued under federal laws for constitutional violations.

The state called this argument "outrageous."