Favorable Verdict for Victim of Police Violence

In the Broward Circuit courtroom of Judge J. Cail Lee, a panel of six jurors viewed a videotape of the 1985 shooting death of 47-year-old Herber Harris III. The video showed a member of the Broward Sheriff´s Office SWAT team approaching Harris´ home. Moments later, there was a gunshot, and the video showed the dying man take his last breaths on his kitchen floor.

Seven weeks prior, a team of deputies, including Hoffman, found several loaded weapons in a search of his house and charged Harris with trafficking cocaine.

Harris died from a shotgun blast to his back. In 1986, a county grand jury determined that the officer who shot him, Deputy Joseph Hoffman, would not be held responsible because he thought Harris was running into his house to retrieve a gun.

Herber’s wife, Janice Harris, filed suit against Hoffman and Sheriff Nick Navarro, alleging that Hoffman was guilty of gross negligence and that the Sheriff’s office was negligent in hiring him. She additionally charged them with violating her husband’s right to protection from unwarranted search and seizure.

After investigating the case, Harris´ attorney, Robert Kelley of Kelley/Uustal, showed that Hoffman received pre-employment psychological evaluation twice in 1979. The tests revealed that Hoffman had great difficulty with impulse control, a great amount of repressed anger, and a tendency to “lash out at people.” The company responsible for overseeing the tests concluded that Hoffman was not recommended for service with the Plantation Police Department, but could be allowed to work for the Sheriff’s Office providing he underwent psychotherapy. This condition was never met.

Two pictures of Hoffman emerged in opening arguments: one of a volatile and emotionally unstable policeman, another of a much-decorated, competent officer.

In light of this evidence that Hoffman was an emotionally unstable and volatile person, Hoffman and Navarro’s attorney, Bruce Jolly, maintained that Hoffman was “a highly skilled, highly motivated sophisticated, controlled and controllable police officer.”

Lt. Robert Freeman accompanied the SWAT team in the final, fatal search to videotape the raid for training purposes. When Hoffman saw Harris in the backyard, he could be heard shouting in the video: “Hold it. Freeze.” immediately followed by a gunshot. As Harris lay mortally wounded and gasping for air, Hoffman was heard saying, “Look, it don’t look too good for you. Do you want to make a statement?”

Harris died soon afterwards. After a lengthy legal battle, the jury ruled in favor of Harris’ survivors.

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