By Jeff Coen, Chicago Tribune staff reporter
The family of a paraplegic man who alleged he was wrongfully shot by Chicago police officers during a 2003 traffic stop have settled a law-suit against the city for more than $5 million after a federal jury found in their favor. Cornelius Ware had been pulled over in front of his home in the 8400 block of South Loomis Boulevard by a group of plainclothes officers who ordered him out of his car. But Ware, 20, paralyzed from the waist down from another shooting, was unable to get out. What happened next that August evening has been in dispute.
Police said they saw Ware with a gun, and an officer fired into his car, mortally wounding him. Lawyers for his family said an unarmed Ware was shot six times—in the back of both hands, in the back, in the head, in the thigh and in the face—and that a gun was planted in the car to justify it. Ware died less than three weeks later.
Jurors heard the evidence and found for Ware’s family late Friday. Their attorney, Jon Loevy, said he was contacted by the city on Sunday with the settlement offer. The penalty phase of the case was to begin this week.
Loevy said Chicago police found the shooting was justified within hours, before forensic evidence was even returned.
Jurors were told that testing showed there was no blood or fingerprints on the gun that police said Ware held.
“The jury heard that the physical evidence did not support the police account,” Loevy said. “The eyewitnesses all saw [Cornelius] with his hands in the air. He was shot in the back of both hands.”
Loevy said the city had initially offered to settle the case for $25,000, and the family had offered to settle it for about $750,000 on the eve of trial.
“[The city] said, ‘We’re gonna see you in court,’ ” Loevy said. “They badly miscalculated.”
Jennifer Hoyle of the city’s Law Department said police have maintained that the shooting was justified and that the city is not acknowledging any wrongdoing by settling the case at this stage. Jurors were to return to court Tuesday to begin considering damages.
Chicago Police Supt. Philip Cline defended the officers Monday.
“The jury never heard evidence that was crucial in this case,” Cline said. “Evidence that illustrated the plaintiff had a conviction for [unlawful use of a weapon], that he was involved in a drive-by shooting and that a gun he possessed the night before was traced to a homicide.
“It’s unfortunate and even more discouraging for officers who risk their lives every day to keep our streets safe.”
Loevy said there was no connection between Ware and the homicide.
“There was no proof the gun Supt. Cline is talking about had anything to do with Neil Ware,” Loevy said. “It looks like the Police Department is not going to investigate this shooting, notwithstanding eight jurors taking a week to look at the evidence and finding it was not justified.”
Loevy held a news conference Monday in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse to announce the settlement. He was accompanied by Ware’s mother, Tammy Grant.
“After three years I’m just so happy that we finally got justice for him,” Grant said. “That was my biggest concern, to get justice for my son.”
According to a trial brief filed by city lawyers, the Police Department’s stance was that an officer, Anthony Blake, was forced to shoot Ware after he pointed a gun at another officer on the scene on Aug. 18, 2003.
The Gresham District tactical officers were wearing badges and vests and driving unmarked cars as they started their duties that day, according to the brief. They heard a radio call of a car being pursued in a homicide investigation, and saw a car they believed matched the description.
Blake and Officer John Cleggett thought they saw the car go through a stop sign at 84th Street and Loomis and chased it. The vehicle went across oncoming lanes and stopped at an angle, the brief states. Officers took up positions around it.
“As the officers were ordering the driver of the white car to get out of the car, Officer Cleggett, who was at the driver’s door, saw the driver, now known as Cornelius Ware, point a handgun at him,” the brief states. “He immediately yelled, ‘gun!’ to alert his fellow officers, and dove to the ground.”
The city’s position was that a .357 Colt revolver was found from inside the front seat area.
Loevy said that’s simply not what happened.
“The eyewitnesses said [Ware] put his hands in the air,” he said. “The police were yelling at him to get out of that car. He couldn’t get out of the car because he’s paralyzed.”
“His family had come out of the house, they were yelling, ‘He can’t get out of the car because he’s paralyzed,'” Loevy said.
Loevy said the department invariably finds shootings are justified, and he now expects nothing will happen to any of the officers in the case.
Police officials said they remain on the job.
“When the city of Chicago takes the position that no matter what the facts, no matter what the situation, it’s always going to be justified, then the people in the city of Chicago have no reason to believe the city.” Loevy said.
“Every shooting can’t be justified.”