by Jamie Satterfield, Tennessee Lookout
May 12, 2022
In a rare move, a federal appellate court is stripping a Tennessee cop of immunity in the 2018 fatal shooting of a mentally ill man who stood 30 feet away with a knife held at his side when fired upon.
The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals says in an opinion made public late last week that video evidence suggests Lawrenceburg Police Department Captain David Russ’ use of deadly force against Randy Thomas Groom was “excessive” and unjustified.
The court struck down an earlier decision by U.S. District Judge William L. Campbell Jr., to toss out a civil rights lawsuit filed against Russ by Dayna Lee, the mother of Grooms’ child, and is sending the case back to Campbell’s court to allow a jury to make the final decision.
Groom was armed with a knife, held at his side, at the time of the June 2018 fatal encounter with Russ. But the court ruled Groom did not pose an imminent threat to Russ or anyone else — including a fellow officer who was present and later testified he thought Groom’s death was “a bad shoot” — at the moment Russ pulled the trigger.
“Groom’s actions in the moments before the shooting did not justify lethal force,” 6th Circuit Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote in the opinion. “Even Officer (Jason) Lee thought that Groom had calmed down and ‘didn’t see any reason for a shot to be fired from where’ he stood behind Groom.”
Not only did the 6th Circuit opinion strip Russ of qualified immunity – a rarity despite growing public outcry over policing and the use of deadly force – but the court also set a bright line rule for officers considering the use of force.
“What matters is the threat the suspect poses in the moments just before an officer uses force,” Sutton wrote.
And, just as in the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, it was citizen-captured video that tipped the scales against deadly force in the court’s opinion.
Citing cell phone video footage captured by a citizen bystander, the 6th Circuit opinion offers readers a reenactment of the circumstances that led to the fatal shooting of Groom, a 33-year-old, slightly-built native of Lawrenceburg whom Russ and fellow officers knew was mentally ill.
“Considerable misfortune occurred in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, on June 29, 2018,” Sutton wrote in the opinion. “Randy Groom entered a Rite Aid pharmacy to refill a prescription for a brand-name drug that treats opioid addiction.”
Groom was suffering from withdrawals and had been prescribed medication to treat withdrawal symptoms, but, court records show, had no money to pay for it. He did, however, have a coupon he believed would cover it.
“At the outset, a technician informed Groom that he could not use a coupon with which he hoped to buy the drug,” the opinion stated. “Undeterred, Groom paced the store for a few minutes while he waited for the prescription.
“When the pharmacist called Groom to the counter to check him out, Groom grabbed the prescription and left the store without paying,” the opinion continued. “The pharmacist followed him out, offering to provide a lower-cost drug in an amount Groom could afford. Groom refused the offer and kept walking.”
At the time, Groom had a large knife inside a sheath attached to his shorts but never displayed the weapon inside the pharmacy or made any threatening comments to pharmacy staff, the opinion stated.
Russ, summoned along with fellow Officer Lee to investigate the pharmacy theft, knew Groom, the opinion noted.
“Russ had some familiarity with Groom, a Lawrenceburg resident known for walking around the city because he did not own a car,” the opinion stated. “Russ also had heard that Groom suffered from mental illness and had attempted suicide before.”
Russ and Lee caught up with Groom in a nearby shopping center parking lot. When Russ told Groom “they needed to talk,” Groom lifted his shirt and pulled the knife from the sheath.
“Not today, David,” Groom said.
“Both officers drew their firearms,” the 6th Circuit opinion continued.
Russ was standing near his cruiser and facing Groom, who was at least 30 feet away from the police captain. Lee was standing a similar distance behind Groom. Both officers ordered Groom to drop the knife. Groom, instead, waved the knife in the air and begged Russ to shoot him, the opinion stated.
But Groom then stopped yelling or moving, lowered the knife to his side and simply stood quietly between the two officers “for another 20 seconds,” the opinion stated.
“Officer Lee testified that, although Groom at first was ‘being very belligerent’ and ‘yelling,’ he appeared to deescalate the situation because he stopped walking and eventually stopped waving the knife, instead holding it at waist height,” the opinion stated.
Officer ‘in shock’
What happened next is at the heart of Groom’s mother’s case against Russ, according to the opinion.
Groom, video footage revealed, took a single step, and Russ opened fire. Russ contended, court records show, Groom’s step was forward and “aggressive,” so the captain shot him. Nashville attorney Ben Raybin argued, on behalf of Groom’s mother, his single step was “sideways” and faltering, not threatening.
“What no one disputes is that Russ, still standing near the rear of his vehicle, fired a shot at Groom,” the appellate court opinion stated.
Officer Lee did not.
“Lee stated that when Russ fired the shot, ‘I was really in shock because I didn’t, I was not expecting the shot and I didn’t see any reason for a shot to be fired from where I was standing,’” court records stated. “Lee stated that from his perspective, Groom was far enough away from the officers and bystanders that there would have been time to ‘engage him before he got to us.’”
The 6th Circuit says Groom’s single step—whether forward or sideways—was not threatening enough to justify deadly force and, therefore, Russ cannot claim the protection of qualified immunity.
“The use of lethal force is excessive unless an officer has probable cause to believe a suspect poses an immediate threat of serious physical harm to the officer or others,” the court wrote. “Groom did not pose an imminent and serious risk when Russ fired his weapon. Russ, the closest individual, stood near the back of his vehicle 30 feet away.
“Officer Lee provided cover with his firearm from behind Groom,” the court continued. “Aside from telling Russ ‘not today’ when Russ said they needed to talk, Groom did not make any verbal threats. He stood still for roughly 20 seconds, lowered his knife to waist height, then made one step sideways to Russ.
“This was not a threatening advance or at least that is what a jury could find on this record,” the court concluded.
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