A Baltimore County judge was wrong to overturn a jury verdict awarding $38 million to the family of Korryn Gaines, the 23-year-old Randallstown woman who was shot and killed by county police in 2016, a state appeals court has ruled.
In an opinion late Wednesday, judges found the lower court abused its discretion in throwing out the jury’s decision to award Gaines’ family and young son, Kodi, the money. Still, attorneys disagree about whether the 80-page opinion reinstates all or just some of the historic award, the largest ever against a Baltimore-area police force.
Ken Ravenell, an attorney for the family, said the money is reinstated in full, at least for now.
“This is obviously huge for Kodi and the rest of the Gaines family,” Ravenell said. “The court found that the trial judge violated the law in taking that verdict away. They can now expect that they can collect a significant award in the near future.”
Ravenell acknowledged the opinion leaves open the door for a lower court to reconsider the amount or grant a new civil trial.
A spokesman for Baltimore County disagreed, saying its attorneys believe the opinion actually reduces the award significantly.
“The County is continuing a comprehensive evaluation of the opinion and considering further action,” the spokesman, Sean Naron, wrote in an email. “We cannot comment further.”
The case traces back to August 2016 when county police officers went to an apartment building in Randallstown to serve arrest warrants on Gaines for not appearing in court on a traffic case and on her fiancee for an alleged assault. After no one opened the door, the first officers unlocked it with a key from the apartment complex and later kicked it in to break the security chain.
The first officer who went in, Officer Allen Griffin III, testified he saw Gaines holding a shotgun and immediately knew the situation was dangerous.
“The barrel was pointed right dead at my chest and my face,” he told jurors during the three-week civil trial in February 2018.
He testified that he yelled to his partner: “Gun! Gun! Gun!” and backed out of the apartment. Griffin and other officers took positions outside the door.
Gaines distrusted the police. Her family’s lawyers said she had mental illness that caused her possibly to detach from reality.
Cpl. Royce Ruby was stationed for five hours just outside the door, which was cracked open a few inches. Ruby testified that Gaines sat in the hallway of her apartment, a shotgun on her lap and a cellphone to her ear.
She broadcast some of the standoff on Facebook until police succeeded in having her accounts shut down. She used her phone to videotape officers, and sometimes gave the phone to 5-year-old Kodi so he could film, too.
Eventually, Kodi went into the kitchen and Gaines followed. The boy would tell a therapist later that his mother was shot when she went to make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, according to testimony at trial.
Ruby testified that Gaines suddenly went into the kitchen and raised the shotgun in a firing position pointed toward officers. He testified that he could see only the barrel of the shotgun and long braids of her hair.
“Fearing for officer safety, he fired ‘a head shot,' aiming high to avoid hitting Kodi, who he knew was in the kitchen, although he did not know exactly where,” the appeals judges noted in their opinion.
He fired from the building’s hallway and through drywall toward where he thought Gaines was, then entered the apartment and shot Gaines three more times. She fired once, the judges wrote.
“There was no choice,” Ruby testified. “Officers were going to die if I didn’t take that shot.”
The first bullet struck Gaines and ricocheted off the refrigerator to hit Kodi across the cheek, the judges wrote. The boy underwent multiple surgeries to have the bullet fragments removed, and the wound later became infected.
Kodi’s father, Corey Cunningham, testified that Kodi is “a shell of himself” who is now skittish, distrustful and has trouble sleeping and behaving in school. He’s had surgeries and sees a counselor. The family sued the officers and the county.
A Baltimore County jury found the first shot fired by Ruby was not reasonable, and therefore violated Gaines’ civil rights under state and federal statutes. They awarded Kodi and her family about $38 million.
Attorneys for the county appealed. One year later, Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Mickey Norman — a former state trooper himself — overturned the verdict, saying Ruby acted reasonably when he fired because Gaines was armed and refusing commands to drop her shotgun.
Immediately, attorneys for the family argued against the ruling. Attorney J. Wyndal Gordon said the judge got the facts wrong.
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“The court is not supposed to supplant his judgment for that of a jury,” Gordon said.
They appealed, and Wednesday the appeals court reversed the judge. In the opinion, appeals judges cited a ruling in a similar case from California. In both instances, the trial witnesses offered slightly different accounts.
“When the issue of reasonableness of a police officer’s action or the applicability of qualified immunity ‘turns upon which version of facts one accepts, the jury, not the judge, must determine liability,‘” the appeals judges wrote.
It’s unlikely Wednesday’s opinion concludes the matter. County attorneys also may ask the state’s highest court to throw out the verdict.
For now, the opinion renews hope of much-needed financial support for Gaines’ family and traumatized son, Ravenell said.
“This gives them the hope that in the very near future a young Kodi will get the psychological care that he needs so desperately,” he said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.