WEST PALM BEACH - Before collapsing tearfully into the arms of a friend who was waiting outside a federal courtroom on Wednesday afternoon, Lydia Adams did a slight fist pump.
While a jury, after nearly 14 hours of deliberation during three days, couldn’t agree about whether Palm Beach County sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Custer used excessive force in May 2012 when he fatally shot her 24-year-old son, Seth, most agreed the veteran officer had done just that.
In answer to an unusual request from U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley after he declared a mistrial, the jury revealed it had voted 7-2 that Custer had no reason to use deadly force when he encountered Adams outside the family-owned A One Stop Garden Shop in Loxahatchee Groves, where the young man lived and worked with his brother and sister-in-law.
Further, eight of the nine jurors agreed Custer had acted in bad faith and intentionally destroyed his department-issued cell phone to prevent its damning text messages from being revealed.
While far from the $10 million to $20 million Lydia and Richard Adams had sought, the deeply religious Palm Bay couple said they were “disappointed” but not daunted by the jury’s failure to reach a unanimous verdict, making it impossible for them to even reach the issue of damages.
“This has been and continues to be a spiritual battle against the forces of evil,” Richard Adams told reporters. “We’re grateful Seth’s story has been told. We look forward to trying it again.”
The couple said the month-long trial wasn’t just about seeking justice for their son. They said they were fighting for countless others who have lost loved ones to police shootings.
“We’re not done. We’re not done,” Lydia Adams said as she wiped away tears. “We can’t bring Seth back. We lost on May 17, 2012 when Seth was taken from us. We’ve spent five years trying to clean up the mess and shine the light on what’s going on in our communities and in our nation. I’m not stopping. You haven’t seen the last of me.”
She said she is still stung that Custer has never expressed any remorse for shooting her son when he returned home near midnight to find the officer, working undercover, in the garden shop’s parking lot. Wednesday was no different.
Custer, flanked by his attorneys, who also represented the sheriff’s office, said nothing when reporters asked him for comment when he left the courthouse as the Adams’ family looked on. Later, in a statement, the sheriff’s office called the jury’s failure to reach a decision “unfortunate.”
It lauded Custer as a good officer who fired only because he believed his life was in danger. It also acknowledged the Adams’ family’s suffering.
“There are no winners in this civil trial,” the office wrote. “The Adams family lost a son, and Sgt. Custer and his family have endured a great deal of stress and emotional pressure. No one wants this to happen to any family.”
Mindful that Judge Hurley this past week blasted the investigation as “slipshod and shoddy” and “a disgrace,” and that the Adams’ family and their attorneys claimed top brass conspired to cover up the truth, the sheriff’s office defended its actions.
In the statement, it pointed out the Florida Department of Law Enforcement signed off on its work and that the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office concluded Custer’s actions were justified.
Lydia Adams said she hopes that will change. She said she and her husband will again ask State Attorney Dave Aronberg to reopen the investigation into what really happened.
Their attorney, Wallace McCall, said the jury’s lopsided votes should “send a loud and clear message” to the sheriff’s office. “The investigation was a joke. It was a cover-up,” he said. “They botched the whole investigation and they did it on purpose.”
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