What to Know
- Three judges from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta found sufficient factual dispute about the officer’s actions that morning.
Nearly six years after 16-year-old Sebastian Gregory was shot by a Miami-Dade police officer who mistakenly thought he was reaching for a gun, his family’s lawsuit is being partially reinstated by a federal appeals court.
Three judges from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta found sufficient factual dispute about the officer’s actions that early morning of May 28, 2012 to warrant a jury trial.
Both sides are asking the full court to rehear their arguments: the officer seeking a full dismissal; Gregory’s family asking the county be reinstated as a defendant.
A federal judge in Miami had dismissed the case against the county and Officer Luis Perez, finding “it was reasonable (for Perez) to believe his life was in peril” before he opened fire on Gregory, who was walking along a Kendall sidewalk at 3:30 a.m. in what Perez felt was a suspicious manner.
Perez said he saw a bulge in Gregory’s pants that he thought was a firearm and – having previously arrested Gregory carrying a bat and two knives – feared for his life when, he said, Gregory made a quick move to touch the bulge. It turned out to be from a small bat Gregory said he carried for protection.
Gregory survived and claimed he followed Perez’s instructions to get on the ground, adding that he never moved his hands toward the bulge. But after Gregory gave an interview on Colombian television, Perez cited the report to argue Gregory had admitted he did in fact reach toward the bulge. Citing that interview, the trial court dismissed the case.
But the appellate panel found that interview, conducted and reported in Spanish, was not as definitive on that crucial point as the trail judge inferred.
“A jury issue exists as to whether Gregory moved his hands toward the bulge on his hip and thus posed an immediate risk of serious bodily harm to Officer Perez,” the appellate judges found, remanding the case for trial on three counts against Perez: excessive force, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The appeals court did agree that another count, claiming Perez’s action cost the parents the companionship and affection of their son, was properly dropped at the trial level.
Perez has already been cleared by the state attorney’s office, which found the use of force was justified. And in court papers, his position is clear: he did nothing wrong in reacting to what he perceived was a deadly threat from a known juvenile criminal suspect who had possessed weapons in the past.
But the civil rights lawsuit is a separate matter.
If the case does go to trial, Sebastian Gregory will not be there to see it.
In January 2016, he left the family home, bought a bottle of alcohol, drank from it and hanged himself from a tree.
To Andres Gregory, Sebastian’s father, it was, in part, a sign he had failed as father.
“When this happened, you as a father feel, ‘I didn’t do my job. I didn’t complete what I have to do,’” he said.
But he blames the shooting for putting his son on the path to suicide.
“He tried, he tried very hard, until he decided not anymore, not to go any more. He just decided that was too much for him,” Andres Gregory said.
When the medical examiner was bringing his son’s body out of the woods, he said he was allowed to touch the body bag. “And I just say, ‘Love you. Sorry for everything that happened,’” he recalled.
If the case makes it back to district court, family attorney Michael Feiler said a new count for wrongful death will be added.
“The effect of what happened to him, when he went through the pain he suffered, ultimately led to him taking his own life, which never should have happened,” Feiler contends.
Citing the ongoing litigation, Miami-Dade police declined to comment on the case on behalf of the agency and its officer, as did the county attorney’s office.
As they wait for the legal details to be worked out, Gregory’s parents attend public meeting about police-community relations.
In them, they wear tee shirts displaying a drawing their son made. It shows a stick figure firing a gun into another that lay on the ground, surrounded by blood.
The captions read: This was me when I was 16. All I see is pain. All I feel is loneliness.