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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lawsuit filed over taser death

August 12, 2008
MICHAEL KUNZELMAN, The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The family of a central Louisiana man who died after a police officer repeatedly jolted him with a Taser filed a wrongful-death lawsuit Monday, on the eve of a grand jury's probe of the case.

The federal lawsuit accuses Winnfield city officials of civil rights violations in the death of Baron Pikes, 21. Former Winnfield police officer Scott Nugent is accused of shocking a handcuffed Pikes nine times with a 50,000-volt Taser stun gun while arresting him on a drug possession warrant in January. A coroner ruled the death was a homicide.

A grand jury in Winnfield is scheduled to convene Tuesday and could finish hearing evidence in the case by the end of the day, according to a spokesman for Winn Parish District Attorney Chris Nevils.

Taser International Inc. is named as a defendant in the lawsuit filed Monday by Latrina Thomas, who is the mother of Pikes' 4-year-old son.

Thomas also is suing the city of Winnfield, its mayor, city council, police chief and several police officers, including Nugent. The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, plus fees and expenses.

"It's about justice," said Carol Powell Lexing, a lawyer for Pikes' family. "You can't bring (Pikes) back, but this can hold those responsible accountable for their actions."

Nugent was fired in May, but he is appealing his dismissal. Nugent's lawyer, Phillip Terrell, said his client followed department protocols and didn't use excessive force. "It's a tragedy any way you look at it," Terrell said Friday.

Terrell said he hadn't seen the lawsuit, but he echoed the suit's allegation that Winnfield failed to properly supervise and train its officers. "If there's any culpability here, it's on Winnfield for not properly training police officers," Terrell said.

Nevils, whose office received a copy of a state police report on Pikes' death last month, said his decision to take the case to a grand jury also was based on information that his office gathered "independently." Terrell said he doesn't expect his client to testify before the grand jury.

Winnfield is about 40 miles northwest of Jena, where thousands of demonstrators gathered last year to protest the criminal cases against six black teenagers who were charged with beating a white student at a high school.

Like the so-called "Jena Six" case, race has figured into the aftermath of the Winnfield case. Pikes was black; Nugent is white. Powell Lexing has accused city officials of trying to cover up a racially motivated case of police brutality.

Racial tensions aren't the only parallel between the two cases. Mychal Bell, one of the Jena Six, is a first cousin of Pikes, according to Powell Lexing.

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