Family of biracial man killed by Madison officer files suit

AP News
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Posted: Aug 12, 2015 6:02 PM

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The family of a biracial man who was shot and killed by a Wisconsin police officer filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Wednesday, alleging the officer's actions were unconstitutional.

The lawsuit contends that Madison Police Officer Matt Kenny's decision to shoot 19-year-old Tony Robinson Jr. in March violated Robinson's equal protection rights and right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. It also argues that the city enables such misconduct by failing to adequately train, supervise and control its officers, amounting to indifference to the use of deadly force.

"Despite the cries of a grieving community, the authorities, including the City of Madison, have endorsed Defendant Kenny's actions," the lawsuit said. "Those actions have left a family and community irreparably harmed, and without other recourse."

Wisconsin Professional Police Association Executive Director Jim Palmer is serving as Kenny's attorney. He stressed in an email to The Associated Press that Kenny was completely exonerated following an exhaustive investigation. Prosecutors earlier this year declined to press charges against Kenny and Police Chief Mike Koval concluded Kenny didn't violate any departmental policies.

"While the death of Tony Robinson was tragic and has helped spark a constructive dialogue in Wisconsin on the relationship between law enforcement and the people it serves, Officer Kenny's actions were completely justified," Palmer said.

Deputy City Attorney Patricia Lauten said she hadn't seen the lawsuit but promised the city would mount a vigorous defense.

"The issue will go to a jury to decide," she said. "We don't believe the officer did anything illegal."

Robinson's mother, Andrea Irwin, said at a news conference Wednesday that the lawsuit was her last resort to get justice for her son.

"We have sat back and tried to let the justice system work for itself but at the end of the day there has been no justice," Irwin said, surrounded at the state Capitol by her attorneys and supporters who held a banner that said "Black Lives Matter."

Irwin, who wore a T-shirt that said "In loving memory of #tonyrobinson," said she did not want her son to be forgotten.

The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages from both Kenny and the city, comes a day after attorneys announced they had reached a $2.3 million settlement with Madison in a separate federal action that accused former Officer Stephen Heimsness of using excessive force when he shot and killed a local musician in 2012. Heimsness, like Kenny, was cleared of any wrongdoing. Lauten said Tuesday that the city agreed to the settlement to end what could be years of expensive litigation.

The Robinson family's lawsuit called both shootings "strikingly similar" and said they demonstrate city officials don't care about police using deadly force against unarmed citizens. Asked about the timing of the Robinson filing, Lauten said every case is decided on its own merits.

Kenny shot Robinson on March 6 in an apartment stairwell after responding to calls that Robinson had been running in traffic and assaulted two people. The officer heard sounds of a struggle in an upstairs apartment so he drew his pistol and started up, Kenny told investigators. Robinson appeared at the top of the stairs and started punching him so he fired seven rounds, Kenny said.

Another officer searched the apartment but found no one, leading investigators to conclude Robinson was talking to himself. Witnesses told investigators later that Robinson was high on mushrooms.

The shooting prompted days of peaceful street protests.

The lawsuit alleges that Robinson never posed a threat that would justify deadly force. It also accuses Kenny of lying about the incident, saying Kenny's story about how Robinson kept charging him even after he opened fire is implausible.

Investigators also improperly allowed him to examine the scene and review police dashcam videos before making a statement, the lawsuit maintains.

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Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.