Story by Ashley Remkus, The Associated Press
Dana Fletcher’s family still doesn’t know the names of the police officers who shot and killed him outside a gym in Madison two years ago.
The city has refused to show the family body camera footage or release police reports of what happened on Oct. 27, 2019 when Fletcher died in the parking lot of a busy shopping center.
In a series of lawsuits filed this week, just one day be- fore the deadline under the statute of limitations, his family alleges officers unlaw- fully tased, beat and released a police dog to bite Fletcher before shooting and killing him that evening.
The city has defended the officers’ actions and said it plans a“vigorous defense”in court. The Madison County District Attorney’s Office previously determined the officers were “entirely justified” in the case and shared images they said showed a gun in Fletcher’s hand when police pulled him from the parked van.
One lawsuit, filed in federal court, accuses the city, its elected officials and five police officers of violating Fletcher’s civil rights. It runs 64 pages, names 19 defendants and lists 28 counts, including wrongful death and excessive force. Fletcher’s sister Shayla, a Birmingham attorney, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the northern district of Alabama on Tuesday on behalf of her brother’s widow, Cherelle, and their young daughter. The 19 defendants include the five unnamed officers, current Chief Johnny Gandy, former Chief David Jernigan, Mayor Paul Finley and current and former city council members.
The lawsuit says Dana Fletcher was with their daughter, sitting in the pas- senger seat of his wife’s parked van, while Cherelle worked out at Planet Fit- ness on that Sunday afternoon two years ago. Police arrived and confronted Dana Fletcher shortly after Cherelle Fletcher returned to the vehicle.
The authorities have previously said that police went to the shopping center that day to investigate reports that Dana Fletcher was taking pictures and asking “weird” questions inside the gym.
When an officer approached the vehicle, the lawsuit contends, Dana Fletcher had not committed any crime so he “completely, totally, and utterly ignored the officer” and “went about his business” as “a form of symbolic, expressive speech and protest against the very kind of police abuses that would ultimately end his life in only a few moments’ time.”
Police did not tell Dana Fletcher or his family why they surrounded the vehicle, according to the lawsuit. The encounter lasted about seven minutes. The lawsuit says Fletcher tried to defend himself and his family as police pointed guns, tased him, beat him and released a dog to bite him.
One officer smashed the driver’s window, opened the door and pulled Cherelle and their daughter from the van and onto the pavement and broken glass, according to the lawsuit.
“Like hundreds of other reasonably intelligent Alabama citizens, Mr. Fletcher knew that there are sup- posed to be limits on the power of police to forcefully intrude on a law-abiding citizen’s liberty for no good reason,” the lawsuit says.
Asked about the lawsuit, city officials pointed to an investigation by the Madison County Sheriff’s Office and a review by the county district attorney that cleared the officers of criminal charges.
“The City stands behind its officers and will defend their actions in a court of law,” says a statement from Samantha Magnuson, the city’s communications director.
At a press conference about three weeks after the deadly shooting, District Attorney Rob Broussard showed news reporters still images from bodycam footage, which showed a gun in Fletcher’s hand.Yet both the DA’s office and the city have declined to release the footage. Fletcher’s family has maintained that he was unarmed.
“The District Attorney confirmed that Mr. Fletcher possessed and threatened Madison Police Officers with a gun prior to the use of lethal force,” the city statement says. The city declined to comment further.
The federal lawsuit alleges that the city’s customs and practices of policing are unconstitutional. It accuses police of excessive force, unlawful detention, false imprisonment, false arrest, conspiracy to interfere with civil rights, wrongful death, assault and battery, inten- tional infliction of emotional distress, and more.
The lawsuit also asks that qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields police and other government employees from liability when they are doing their jobs, and the doctrine of arguable reasonable suspicion, be declared unconstitutional.
“These doctrines treat a police officer like some wizard capable of conjuring out of thin air a legitimate reason to infringe on fundamental constitutional rights of law- abiding citizens, often with tragic consequences and virtually no accountability to the public or redress to the victims,” the lawsuit says.
Shayla Fletcher also filed a separate federal lawsuit against Ben Crump, a nationally known civil rights and personal injury attorney who briefly represented the Fletcher family. The lawsuit accuses Crump of legal malpractice, alleging that he abruptly terminated his representation and harmed their ability to retain other counsel and pursue a lawsuit. Crump’s press office did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Shayla Fletcher wrote in court records that she recently agreed to represent her sister-in-law “despite previously lacking the emotional and substantive competence necessary to prosecute legal action against the individuals who harassed, brutalized, and killed” her brother.
In a third lawsuit filed in Madison County Circuit Court on Tuesday, Dana Fletcher’s mother, Deborah, is suing the city, Mayor Paul Finley, Police Chief Johnny Gandy and the Madison City Council. Deborah Fletcher is representing herself in the case.
Both the federal and state court lawsuits against the city say the investigation lacked transparency, as the city and the sheriff’s office denied requests for bodycam footage and police reports.
“To this day, Cherelle Fletcher does not know the real reason MPD officers surrounded her vehicle and attacked her family,” the federal lawsuit says.
Both lawsuits also reference AL.com reporting from last year about the city’s plans to give medals to three of the officers who were involved in the deadly encounter. After AL.com reported on plans for a private commendation ceremony, the city announced it was indefinitely postponing the ceremony.
Deborah Fletcher’s state court lawsuit asks that Madison’s policing practices be declared unconstitutional. The case is pending reassign- ment to a judge after Madi- son County Circuit Judge Allison Austin recused herself.
The federal lawsuit against the city asks for a jury trial and seeks damages, plus payment of attorney’s fees.