Appeals Court upholds ruling favoring Mooresville police in fatal shooting

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  • The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a trial court ruling favoring Mooresville police in a lawsuit involving a fatal 2020 shooting.
  • Appellate judges agreed that officers who shot and killed Christopher Kimmons Craven "acted reasonably in light of the circumstances.”
  • The case involved a “harrowing 911 call” from Craven's 21-year-old stepdaughter.

The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a trial court ruling favoring Mooresville police in a lawsuit over a fatal 2020 shooting. Appellate judges agreed that police “acted reasonably in light of the circumstances.”

The case stemmed from the August 2020 shooting death of Christopher Kimmons Craven. An unsigned 4th Circuit opinion described a “harrowing 911 call” from Craven’s stepdaughter that preceded the shooting.

“The COVID-19 pandemic heightened Mr. Craven’s pre-existing anxiety and contributed to his struggle with depression,” according to the court opinion. On the night of the shooting, “he became increasingly anxious and frustrated and began expressing that he did not want to live.”

Craven’s wife and 21-year-old stepdaughter decided to call authorities. The phone call alerted authorities that “My stepdad hit my mom in front of me and my siblings and he is threatening to blow his brains out … and he is screaming and getting in her face and he won’t stop.” At one point, Craven pointed a gun to his head and threatened to shoot himself, according to his wife’s testimony.

At one point in the 911 recording, Craven said “When the police show up here, thank” the stepdaughter who called authorities. “You won’t have a [expletive] daddy no more (inaudible).”

Officers who arrived at the Craven home “knew none of the Craven family’s history and only sparse details of Dunn’s frantic 911 call, as reported to them by dispatch,” the 4th Circuit opinion recounted.

Testimony from police officers suggested that Craven yelled at them “just shoot me,” “you are going to have to shoot me,” or “You’re going to have to [expletive] kill me.” Craven’s wife, suing on behalf of his estate, offered a different story. She argued that “video footage is not clear, but can reasonably be interpreted as [Mr.] Craven saying nothing, or ‘Ya’ll know you don’t have to shoot me.’”

When police approached Craven, they ordered him to raise his hands. Video evidence “depicts Mr. Craven raising both of his hands, but then swiftly lowering them toward his waist,” according to the appellate judges. “The Officers testified that after Mr. Craven lowered his hands, he reached toward his waistband and drew a handgun with his right hand. It was at this moment that the Officers commenced firing their rifles until Mr. Craven collapsed to the ground.”

Craven died at the scene.

A lawsuit filed in state Superior Court in September 2021 alleged excessive use of force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, gross negligence, assault and battery, and wrongful death based on the use of deadly force. The suit also targeted Mooresville “for its alleged failure to train the Officers to respond properly to mental health crises.”

Mooresville and the targeted officers had the case moved to federal court. US District Judge Kenneth Bell ruled in favor of the town and police officers.

“A police officer is not required to ‘wait until a gun is pointed at him before he is entitled to use deadly force when other factors (like furtive movement) indicate an imminent threat to life.,’” appellate judges wrote. “While the body camera footage is not entirely clear as to whether Mr. Craven drew his gun on the Officers, it clearly supports that when faced with clear commands to submit to the Officers, Mr. Craven failed to do so and instead dropped his hands toward his waist where a holster was visible. That alone is enough to support that the Officers acted reasonably when they deployed deadly force.”

“[T]he Officers’ actions were consistent with, and not in violation of, clearly established law where Mr. Craven, whom the Officers believed to be armed, failed to adhere to their commands to surrender,” according to the opinion. “The fact that Mr. Craven understood the Officers’ clear commands and yet moved his arms down toward his waistband where a gun was believed to be concealed, aligns this case with Slattery and Anderson,” two precedent cases, “where no constitutional violation was found. Thus, at the time of this incident, no clearly established law indicated that the Officers could not lawfully use deadly force under the circumstances.”

Judges Robert King, Stephanie Thacker, and Allison Jones Rushing heard the case. Their unpublished opinion does not serve as a binding precedent for the 4th Circuit.