Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg has declined a request by the parents of Seth Adams to reopen an investigation into the fatal shooting of their son by a deputy five years ago.
The deadly two-minute encounter at the A One Stop Garden Shop in Loxahatchee on May 17, 2012, sparked a wrongful death civil trial, a $2.5 million settlement and sharp criticism by a federal judge of the way the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s department’s conducted their investigation into the fatal shooting.
In a letter to the Adams family’s attorney, Aronberg stood by the conclusion the office made in 2012: The shooting by undercover Sgt. Michael Custer was justified.
“Justice deserves finality, and we respect the decisions made by previous administrations and give great deference to them,” said the letter dated June 9. “As prosecutors, it is unethical to file criminal charges when we have no good faith basis that we would succeed at trial.”
The civil trial earlier this year ended with a hung jury. Last month the Sheriff’s Office settled the lawsuit for $2.5 million.
Adams, 24, was unarmed when he was fatally shot by Custer, who parked at the nursery to conduct surveillance as part of an undercover operation not connected to the business.
Adams worked and lived at the nursery and was returning home at 11:40 p.m. after being at a local bar with friends. His blood-alcohol level was .131, over the legal limit, according to a medical examiner’s report.
Custer said that Adams parked his truck next to his Ford Explorer and got out and started yelling at him. Custer told investigators that he got out of his vehicle and identified himself as a deputy, but Adam’s anger only intensified, to the point where he grabbed Custer’s neck. Custer said he broke away and ordered Adams to the ground but instead, Adams went to his truck, the driver’s side door open, and reached inside.
Custer said that he feared for his life because Adams had already attempted to strangle him, and believed that Adams reached inside to retrieve a gun. Custer said he shot Adams at close range as he turned back towards the deputy. Adams wasn’t carrying a firearm and didn’t have one in his truck.
Custer fired four times and all four bullets struck Adams, one just grazing his arm but two hitting him in in the upper chest, traveling to his lower back and striking several organs and perforating a lung, according to a medical examiner’s report.
Daniel Hurley, the federal judge who presided over the civil trial, said one investigator’s inability to reconcile ballistics and other evidence at the scene was shocking.
"I have never ever heard a detective make statements like that and send it to the State Attorney's Office and point out there were matters he could not reconcile...this investigation has been slipshod and shoddy, this is a disgrace."
Wallace McCall, the family’s attorney said that Aronberg is relying on an investigation that wasn’t conducted properly.
“It goes without saying that when evidence exists from which to do a thorough and careful criminal investigation, reliance upon an investigation that is "slipshod, shoddy, and a disgrace" should never form the basis for a State Attorney's decision to decline prosecution,” he said.
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