"Basicallly, Police Officer Tepper was a bully," said attorney James J. Binns, "someone who never should have worn a badge, or been a police officer."
Binns, representing the parents of the murder victim, is suing Tepper and the city of Philadelphia for damages in a civil case. Opening statements were made today in federal court; the case is expected to run into next week.
In his opening statement, a lawyer for the city conceded that Tepper was a "drunken idiot," but said that the former cop was not acting in any official capacity back in 2009 when he shot the unarmed Port Richmond man during an off-duty incident outside the cop's home.
"You need to be aware of ... everything that happens in this courtroom," the judge said, speaking in a low, hushed voice, with an American flag posted behind him. "I really need you to stay with me, to focus, to watch, observe and listen."
The judge told the jury that the plaintiff's version of the facts was that the city of Philadelphia was ultimately responsible for the tragedy of Billy Panas's death, because for 16 years, they did nothing to curb "Mr. Tepper's use of force."
"Deliberate indifference" was how the judge described the plaintiff's characterization of the city of Philadelphia's conduct. "That's the theory of the case" from the plaintiff's point of view, the judge told the jury. He did not bother to characterize the defense's point of view.
The judge told the jurors that Tepper had been convicted of first-degree murder and was serving a life sentence. As far as the civil case goes, "Tepper has chosen not to be here,"the judge said, presumably under the grounds of not incriminating himself.
Attorney Binns, representing the murdered man's parents, Bill and Karen Panas, talked about how Officer Tepper always "operated outside of the law." In police records, Officer Tepper had 35 Internal Affairs Division files, Binns said, including seven incidents were he was accused of using excessive force.
In 1995, two years after he joined the police department, Tepper was in a bar when he saw someone talking to his fiancee. A drunken Tepper came running out of the bar in a jealous rage. He dove into the car of the man who was talking to his fiancee, and tried to grab the car keys, Binns said. When the man drove off, Tepper jumped into his car sped after him. When the man came to a red light, Tepper rammed the back of his car, pushing him through the intersection. The chase ended when Tepper cut the guy off, bringing both cars to a stop. He then proceeded to club the man with his pistol, which is strictly prohibited by department regulations.
When the police department investigated the incident, Tepper lied his way out of trouble, Binns said. Tepper falsely claimed the other man had dragged him 100 feet while he was hanging out of the man's car. Tepper also falsely claimed he wasn't in the bar, Binns said.
Binns talked to jurors in a tone dripping with disgust as he used police department records to reconstruct Tepper's checkered 16-year career in law enforcement.
"In 2000, he had a banner year," Binns said. "He had four incidents."
Tepper's most frequent bullying victims were teenagers, Binns said. Tepper once beat up a couple of kids who took two years to get up the nerve to report it. In another incident on a hot summer day, Tepper slammed the face of a handcuffed suspect onto the hood of a car, and the man "felt his skin sizzling," Binns said.
In 2002, Tepper got angry because somebody gave his son a wedgie. So he grabbed his O.C. Spray and pistol and ran out the door looking for the neighborhood boy who was responsible. After failing to catch the suspect, he turned back and came across some neighborhood kids. After some words were exchanged, Tepper proceeded to pepper-spray the entire group, including one victim who was holding a two-year-old baby.
After each incident, Binns said, Tepper was investigated, but city officials did nothing to take him out of circulation, or kick him off the force.
In 2009, Tepper was drinking at his home on a summer night, during a baby shower for his step-daughter. Some party guests wandered outside where they got involved in an argument with local neighbors that turned into a fight.
A drunken Tepper came running outside, flashing his badge in his left hand and a 9 mm gun in his right. "I'm a cop," he said, according to witnesses. "Back the fuck up."
Billy Panas, Binns said, made the mistake of calling Tepper's bluff. "He's not gonna shoot anybody," Binns quoted the victim as saying.
Tepper pointed his gun at Panas's chest and pulled the trigger.
In response, Divisional Deputy City Solicitor Armando Brigandi, argued that when Tepper shot Panas, he was "acting in his capacity as Frank Tepper, drunken idiot," and "not acting as a police officer." Tepper was off-duty, and when he came out on the street, and he was carrying his own "personal weapon," not a department-issued gun, Brigandi said.
Tepper was not trying to make an arrest, Bigrandi said. Instead, "he was drunk and he was embarrassed" because Billy Panas had called him out.
Brigandi said that despite Tepper's bad record as a cop, from 2002 until the fatal shooting in 2009, he was not involved in any incident that required an internal investigation.
After Brigandi sat down, Binns played the 911 tape of the Billy Panas shooting. On the recording Officer Tepper is heard saying, "We're all good, we're all good. We're all cops here."
Binns then played in court videotaped depositions of several witnesses. Ashley Chambers refused to talk about the day her stepfather Frank Tepper shot Billy Panas. "I don't want to talk," she repeatedly said during her deposition.
Alicia Chambers, Tepper's niece, said that the off-duty cop was trying to act as peacemaker, but that several neighbors were swarming him and "punching him in the face."
Joseph Mascino took the witness stand and talked about how Tepper had used his badge and gun to threaten one neighbor after another who were fighting with guests outside his step-daughter's baby shower.
"Back the fuck up or I'll shoot you," Mascino quoted Tepper as saying.
When Billy Panas said that Tepper wasn't going to shoot anybody, Tepper pointed his gun and fired.
"The mother-fucker shot me," Mascino quoted Panas as saying. Mascino recalled pulling his brother over who was driving by. "Bobby, Billy got shot," Mascino said he told his brother.
Mascino described how he and his brother loaded a bleeding Panas into the car and attempted to drive him to North Eastern Hospital, only to discover it was closed. On the way, they frantically tried to revive Billy.
"We were screaming his name," Mascino said, and trying to get him "to talk to us." Mascino described how he and his brother broke into the closed hospital where they encountered three security officers who called an ambulance.
"I tried to give him mouth to mouth," Mascino said, as he cried on the witness stand. In the front row of the courtroom, the victim's mother bowed her head and sobbed, while her husband dabbed his eyes and held his arm tightly around her.
The last witness to testify was Lt. Michael Young, of the police department's internal affairs division. Lt. Young said when he arrived on the scene of the fatal shooting, Officer Tepper was in the back of a squad car. He smelled of alcohol, (another officer at the scene described Tepper as "lit up") and the cop was also bleeding from his mouth, Lt. Young said.
Young said that he had been told by witnesses that Billy Panas struck Tepper in the mouth before the officer shot him. But Officer Tepper refused to discuss the shooting with police.
The victim died at Temple University Hospital the same day he was shot, Lt. Young said. He had a single bullet wound in the left side of his chest. Binns tried to show the jury a photo of the dead man, but defense lawyers objected, and the judge sustained the objection.
The case resumes at 9 a.m. Tuesday with Lt. Young back on the stand in Courtroom 6A.