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Jury Rules for Cops in Rights Case

March 22, 2000

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ A federal jury Wednesday exonerated four white officers accused in a civil rights lawsuit of using excessive force in the 1998 death of a black man under arrest.

Andre Stenson, 34, was stopped by police for driving without headlights. Apparently fearing a parole violation because he had no driver’s license, he ran. After he was caught, wrestled to the ground and handcuffed, he complained he couldn’t breathe and died on the way to the hospital.

His widow, Marcellina Stenson, sued for $6.75 million.

She and her lawyer refused comment following the jury’s 8-3 verdict in favor of the officers. One juror was excused because of work obligations.

Officers Craig Sramek, Scott Coffey, James L. Miller Jr. and L.B. Steele III had already been cleared of wrongdoing by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

``The TBI found nothing that these officers did was wrong. The FBI found nothing these officers have done wrong. Now we have a jury that says these officers have done nothing wrong,″ Knoxville Police Chief Phil Keith said. ``It is time to get the community back together.″

Ann Dingus, president of Citizens on Police Review, a community organization supporting the family of Stenson, said, ``We are devastated.″

Medical Examiner Sandra Elkins said Stenson died of a congenital heart defect, not from anything the officers did.

However, Steven Dunton, chief medical examiner for Gwinnett County, Ga., testified for the plaintiffs that Stenson suffocated from being held down on his belly with his hands cuffed behind him.

``For a man to cry out for his life and say, `I can’t breathe,′ and there is no consideration for his life? It appalls me that we have reached that kind of verdict in our community,″ Dingus said.

Attorneys for the officers and the victim’s family agreed to accept a majority verdict when the jurors said that after two weeks of testimony and one day of deliberations they couldn’t reach a unanimous decision.

Neighbors testified they heard sounds suggesting Stenson was being beaten. But the officers denied it and the medical examiner found only two minor cuts on his body.

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