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Litchfield shooting: One year later, suit moves through federal court

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A year after a Litchfield woman was shot and killed by a deputy sent to her home because she was threatening suicide, a lawsuit brought by her family is moving through the federal courts. It is currently scheduled for trial in March.

Valerie Harrington was shot 11 times after she threatened Deputy Joe Wilson with a knife when he entered her apartment in Litchfield Oaks to check on her. Following an investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division, the 15th Circuit solicitor’s office found no evidence of wrongdoing by Wilson.

On July 12, 2014, Wilson and two other deputies responded after Harrington’s mother, Reta Abbott, called 911 to say her daughter was posting suicidal messages on Facebook. On behalf of her daughter’s estate, Abbott filed suit in state court in March alleging negligence and wrongful death. Harrington, who was 36, was the divorced mother of a daughter, who is now 4 years old. The suit names Georgetown County, the sheriff’s office and the three deputies. It was transferred to U.S. District Court in Charleston in May.

The suit claims the deputies lacked training to deal with a person with mental illness and emotional problems. Abbott, who lives in Alabama, spoke with Wilson by phone before he entered the apartment. She had been in Litchfield the day before the shooting. She told a 911 dispatcher her daughter needed to be in a hospital, according to recordings obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In its response to the suit, the defendants acknowledge the deputies went to the apartment, but say they don’t have enough information to assess claims that Harrington suffered from mental illness. They deny a claim that the deputies had time to “discover the inherent danger in a confrontation with force.”

The defendants also deny the claim that the deputies lacked training to deal with someone with a mental illness.

A review by the Coastal Observer of the sheriff’s office records for 2014 showed that two days of in-house training were held in February. Those sessions covered a range of topics including mental illness. The focus is on probate court and pick-up orders, said Sgt. Gary Todd, the training officer.

This year, the session included two counselors from the state Department of Mental Health.

Although deputies attend a variety of classes on topics that range from driving to bloodhounds, domestic violence to crime scene investigation, no one from the sheriff’s office attended training that dealt with mental illness. The closest was training that helps deputies assess colleagues who have experienced trauma.

In their answer to Abbott’s suit, the deputies say they are entitled to immunity from suit since they were acting in the line of duty. They “acted in good faith, and violated no clearly established constitutional or statutory rights which were known or should have been known to them,” according to their response. That’s the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court for immunity.

In a ruling just days after the county filed its response to Abbott’s suit, the high court found immunity applied to two San Francisco police officers who entered the room of a mentally ill woman with a knife. She charged at one officer and was shot. The woman survived. In writing about the issue of immunity, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “This exacting standard ‘gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments’ by ‘protect[ing] all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”

In the Harrington case, the defendants say that if there was negligence by the deputies, which they deny, “the negligence and recklessness of the plaintiff exceeded any negligence or recklessness of these defendants.” They also say the “use of necessary and reasonable force” was justified.

The defendants asked the court to dismiss the suit.

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