The long-awaited tort action from the family of Ashli Babbitt has now been filed in Southern California. Babbitt was shot and killed on Jan. 6th and her family is seeking $30 million in a wrongful death action.
Equally important, the lawsuit could force additional answers to why Capitol Police Lt. Michael Byrd shot and killed the unarmed protester as she attempted to climb through a window near the House Chamber.
I have previously raised concerns over the shooting as conflicting with governing standards on the use of lethal force.
I also noted contradictions in Byrd’s own statements and the government’s conclusion that this was a justified killing.
The complaint below adds some troubling facts to these prior concerns.
Babbitt, 35, was an Air Force veteran and Trump supporter who participated in the riot three years ago.
She was clearly committing criminal acts of trespass, property damage, and other offenses. However, the question is whether an officer is justified in shooting a protester when he admits that he did not see any weapon before discharging his weapon.
Just to recap what we previously discussed in the earlier column:
When protesters rushed to the House chamber, police barricaded the chamber’s doors; Capitol Police were on both sides, with officers standing directly behind Babbitt. Babbitt and others began to force their way through, and Babbitt started to climb through a broken window. That is when Byrd killed her.
At the time, some of us familiar with the rules governing police use of force raised concerns over the shooting. Those concerns were heightened by the DOJ’s bizarre review and report, which stated the governing standards but then seemed to brush them aside to clear Byrd.
The DOJ report did not read like any post-shooting review I have read as a criminal defense attorney or law professor. The DOJ statement notably does not say that the shooting was clearly justified. Instead, it stressed that “prosecutors would have to prove not only that the officer used force that was constitutionally unreasonable, but that the officer did so ‘willfully.’” It seemed simply to shrug and say that the DOJ did not believe it could prove “a bad purpose to disregard the law” and that “evidence that an officer acted out of fear, mistake, panic, misperception, negligence, or even poor judgment cannot establish the high level of intent.”
While the Supreme Court, in cases such as Graham v. Connor, has said that courts must consider “the facts and circumstances of each particular case,” it has emphasized that lethal force must be used only against someone who is “an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and … is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Particularly with armed assailants, the standard governing “imminent harm” recognizes that these decisions must often be made in the most chaotic and brief encounters.
Under these standards, police officers should not shoot unarmed suspects or rioters without a clear threat to themselves or fellow officers. That even applies to armed suspects who fail to obey orders. Indeed, Huntsville police officer William “Ben” Darby was convicted for killing a suicidal man holding a gun to his own head. Despite being cleared by a police review board, Darby was prosecuted, found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison, even though Darby said he feared for the safety of himself and fellow officers. Yet law professors and experts who have praised such prosecutions in the past have been conspicuously silent over the shooting of an unarmed woman who had officers in front of and behind her on Jan. 6.
Byrd went public soon after the Capitol Police declared “no further action will be taken” in the case. He proceeded to demolish the two official reviews that cleared him.
Byrd described how he was “trapped” with other officers as “the chants got louder” with what “sounded like hundreds of people outside of that door.” He said he yelled for all of the protesters to stop: “I tried to wait as long as I could. I hoped and prayed no one tried to enter through those doors. But their failure to comply required me to take the appropriate action to save the lives of members of Congress and myself and my fellow officers.”
Byrd could just as well have hit the officers behind Babbitt, who was shot while struggling to squeeze through the window.
Of all of the lines from Byrd, this one stands out: “I could not fully see her hands or what was in the backpack or what the intentions are.” So, Byrd admitted he did not see a weapon or an immediate threat from Babbitt beyond her trying to enter through the window. Nevertheless, Byrd boasted, “I know that day I saved countless lives.” He ignored that Babbitt was the one person killed during the riot. (Two protesters died of natural causes and a third from an amphetamine overdose; one police officer died the next day from natural causes, and four officers have committed suicide since then.) No other officers facing similar threats shot anyone in any other part of the Capitol, even those who were attacked by rioters armed with clubs or other objects.
The complaint below has some interesting additional facts. For example, it alleges that Babbitt’s hands were in plain sight and empty.
“Ashli could not have seen Lt. Byrd, who was positioned far to Ashli’s left and on the opposite side of the doors, near an opening to the Retiring Room, a distance of approximately 15 feet and an angle of approximately 160 degrees. Sgt. Timothy Lively, one of the armed officers guarding the lobby doors from the hallway, later told officials investigating the shooting, “I saw him . . . there was no way that woman would’ve seen that.” Lt. Byrd, who was not in uniform, did not identify himself as a police officer or otherwise make his presence known to Ashli. Lt. Byrd did not give Ashli any warnings or commands before shooting her dead.”
That is significant. There were officers in front, behind, and to the sides of Babbitt but she was given no warning and likely did not see Byrd pointing his weapon at her.
However, the most interesting allegation is this one:
“At 2:45 p.m., or within one minute after shooting Ashli, Lt. Byrd made the following radio call: 405B. We got shots fired in the lobby. We got shots shots fired in the lobby of the House chamber. Shots are being fired at us and we’re sh, uhh, prepared to fire back at them. We have guns drawn. Please don’t leave that end. Don’t leave that end. Approximately 35 seconds later, Lt. Byrd made another radio call, stating, “405B. We got an injured person. I believe that person was shot.” In fact, no shots were fired at Lt. Byrd or his fellow officers. The only shot fired was the single shot Lt. Byrd fired at Ashli. He heard the loud noise of the gunshot. He saw her fall backwards from the window frame.”
So Byrd allegedly gave a false report of shots being fired after he shot Babbitt.
Here are the seven counts (the second count on negligence is the most detailed and multifaceted):
COUNT I Assault and Battery (Intentional Shooting and Killing of Ashli by Lt. Byrd – ESTATE OF ASHLI BABBITT)
COUNT II Negligence (Lt. Byrd – ESTATE OF ASHLI BABBITT)
COUNT III Negligence (Timothy Lively, Kyle Yetter, Christopher Lanciano Steven Robbs, Don Smith, Brandon Sikes, Mike Brown Jason Gandolph – ESTATE OF ASHLI BABBITT)
COUNT IV Negligent Supervision, Discipline, and Retention of Lt. Byrd (Capitol Police, Capitol Police Board, et al. – ESTATE OF ASHLI BABBITT)
COUNT V Negligent Training (Capitol Police, Capitol Police Board, et al. – ESTATE OF ASHLI BABBITT)
COUNT VI Survival Action (Assault and Battery; Negligence; Negligent Supervision, Discipline, and Retention; Negligent Training – ESTATE OF ASHLI BABBITT)
COUNT VII Wrongful Death (Assault and Battery; Negligence; Negligent Supervision, Discipline, and Retention; Negligent Training – AARON BABBITT)
The complaint, in my view, raises credible allegations that warrant serious review. The Justice Department is likely to seek threshold grounds for dismissal, but the case could offer needed answers to a number of questions. Many of us were not satisfied with the review of the government of the shooting. Discovery would allow for a new review of the underlying record.
The family is being represented by Judicial Watch.
Here is the complaint: Babbitt v. United States
Mon, 01/08/2024 – 21:00