Although the order hasn’t been officially entered yet, Judge Robert B. Propst and attorneys for both sides agreed during a pretrial conference Thursday to drop two of three remaining allegations against Amerson and all three standing accusations against Deputy Wendell Ward.
Anniston resident Stacy Brown filed suit against the sheriff and Ward in April 2011, claiming the two verbally and physically abused her then-14-year-old son when he spent a day in a Calhoun County Jail program for teens.
There wasn’t “substantial enough evidence” against Ward to continue with the claims against him, said Anthony Bush, one of the attorneys representing the boy. Likewise, other than an allegation that stems directly from a videotaped interaction between the sheriff and the boy — identified only as J.B. in the suit — the civil rights claims against Amerson have been dropped.
The sheriff now faces only a claim of excessive force — based on a surveillance video that shows Amerson using manual force against J.B., who is shackled, handcuffed and dressed in an inmate’s jumpsuit. That video was a key part of attorneys’ debates Thursday at the federal courthouse in Anniston, where they argued over whether the judge should rule in the case before it goes to trial, known as a summary judgment.
Although Propst hasn’t made that decision yet, he gave an indication of his thought process after hearing from both sides.
“To be frank, I don’t think I’m going to be able to find from that video tape, as a matter of law, that it was reasonable to contemplate, ‘I’ve got to grab somebody around the head or throat or whatever to keep them from spitting on me,’” he said.
Defense attorneys said Amerson was not choking J.B. in the clip but rather putting his hands over the boy’s mouth to prevent him from spitting. The defense analyzed the video first, arguing that the sheriff used reasonable force against J.B., who had been disruptive, out-of-control and threatening to officers while at the jail.
“The sheriff heard a hocking noise” while he was trying to have a conversation with J.B. as the boy was restrained on a bench next to the sheriff, defense lawyer J. Randall McNeill said.
The judge stopped the attorney to question him.
“How is that obvious when somebody is turned totally the other way?” Propst asked, noting that J.B. is not facing the sheriff in the moments leading up to Amerson’s use of force against the boy. “How would it be reasonable, as a matter of law, that he was about to spit on him?”
McNeill reiterated that Amerson heard J.B. make a noise as if he were about to spit, something that’s not obvious by watching the video, which doesn’t include sound. Plaintiff’s attorneys maintain J.B. did not attempt to spit at or on the sheriff.
“There’s no purpose for what we saw in the video, your honor,” Bush said. He argued J.B. sustained “more than de minimis” injuries after the interaction with Amerson — or, in other words, J.B. received injuries that were more than a person would expect to receive if subjected to reasonable rather than excessive force by a law enforcement officer.
Defense attorneys dispute that notion: They say there are no records of J.B. having any significant physical injury, pointing to a close-up video shot of J.B. that shows him with no clearly visible marks, bruises or contusions.
Bush provided the judge with two black-and-white copies of photographs taken of J.B. after his interaction with Amerson as proof he did have markings around his neck from where the sheriff grabbed him. But Propst said the pictures were too low-quality to tell much of anything.
“It’s a critical issue as to whether there was anything beyond a de minimis injury,” Propst said.
At the end of the conference, he ordered attorneys to look up and quote case law that supports either side’s arguments about the extent of J.B.’s injuries after his contact with the sheriff. The lawyers have 14 days to submit the supporting case law — and another seven days after that to respond to each other. Then, Propst will decide whether to rule in the case on summary judgment or send it to a jury.
McNeill declined to comment on the open case after the conference was over.
Plaintiff’s attorneys said they are confident they will be able to prove their case.
“I don’t think we’ll have a problem,” plaintiff’s attorney Peyton Faulk told a Star reporter.
She said she expects the case will go to trial sometime in the fall — most likely in September or October. Neither J.B. nor his mother was in court for the proceedings Thursday, but Amerson was present alongside his lawyers.
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.