MARKHAM, Ill. (AP) — A suburban Chicago police officer was acquitted Wednesday in the death of a 95-year-old World War II veteran whom he shot with a beanbag gun at an assisted living facility.
Park Forest Police Officer Craig Taylor was charged with felony reckless conduct for the July 2013 death of John Wrana, who died from internal bleeding. He was found not guilty after a bench trial, with the judge saying Taylor showed restraint as Wrana wielded a knife and acted as he was trained.
"There was nothing criminal about his actions," Cook County Judge Luciano Panici said in a courtroom packed with police officers supporting Taylor and Wrana's relatives in Markham, south of Chicago.
Taylor put his head down as the verdict was read, then cried as he stood to hug his crying wife. Wrana's relatives also quietly wept and shook their heads as they hugged one another.
The trial came as the issue of excessive force gained national attention in the wake of killings by police of unarmed men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York's Staten Island. Wrana's death also raised questions about police tactics, but Taylor's supporters noted that he used a beanbag gun, a tactic supported by some police critics.
The basic disagreement in Taylor's case wasn't about the series of events, but rather if Taylor was justified in using a weapon at close range that prosecutors said fires beanbags at 190 mph.
Taylor, 43, was one of several officers dispatched to the assisted living facility where Wrana lived after a staff member reported he had become combative on July 26, 2013.
Wrana struck a staffer with his cane, then brandished a 2-foot-long shoehorn at officers, prompting them to briefly leave the room. When the officers returned, one officer was carrying a Taser, another one had a shield, and Taylor was carrying a 12-gauge shotgun that shoots beanbags.
Wrana then threatened the officers with a knife. When he refused to drop it, an officer fired at him with the Taser but missed. Wrana then moved toward Taylor, who fired his weapon five times.
On Tuesday, the judge noted that Taylor was careful to avoid Taylor's face, neck and spine.
Prosecutors said Taylor had better and safer options than to fire the beanbags at a confused, elderly man, and that the officers didn't have to storm Wrana's room. They said Taylor behaved recklessly when he fired at Wrana from no more than 8 feet away.
Taylor testified that he was following a superior officer's orders, and that he feared for his life and the lives of his fellow offices as Wrana threatened to kill whoever came into his room. Taylor said he felt like he "had to do something to stop" Wrana.
State's Attorney Anita Alvarez defended the decision to charge Taylor.
"I really think other actions could have been taken and more restraint shown," she said after the verdict was announced.
Taylor's defense attorney, Terry Ekl, said his client, who has been on desk duty since he was charged, will return to patrol.
"It is absolutely crystal clear that Craig Taylor did absolutely nothing wrong," Ekl said.
Ekl said Taylor wouldn't speak publicly about the case because of a pending lawsuit filed by Wrana's family, but that the judge's verdict would likely weaken that case.