Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Jury Hits Killer Cop With $4.7 Million Verdict, But Lets City Off With No Damages

A federal jury came back with a $4.7 million verdict today against former Police Officer Frank Tepper  for the Nov. 21, 2009 murder of 21-year-old Billy Panas.

Tepper, serving a life sentence, did not attend the trial of the civil suit filed against him by William and Karen Panas, the parents of the murder victim.

The big winner in court today, however, was the other defendant in the case, the city of Philadelphia.

The jury unanimously decided that the off-duty Philadelphia cop was acting as a police officer when he pulled a gun on Panas in a neighborhood dispute outside the cop's home.

The jury unanimously decided that Tepper violated Billy Panas's civil rights by murdering him; the jury  also unanimously decided that the city of Philadelphia had a custom or policy of "deliberate indifference" when it came to overlooking the use of excessive force by Officer Tepper.

But the jury unanimously decided that the city's custom of deliberate indifference did not cause the murder of Billy Panas. So they let the city off without having to pay any damages.

Talk about dodging a bullet.

The damages awarded against Tepper included $1,242,000 in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages. It was a symbolic victory at best, as the former cop now doing life probably doesn't have $4.7 million stashed in his jail cell.

"Whatever we can do for the Panas family we will do," said James J. Binns, the plaintiffs's lawyer.

Binns said he hoped that Tepper had a police pension he could go after.

On the night he murdered Panas, Tepper was attempting to disperse a crowd of teenagers gathered outside his home when he waved his gun around and threatened to shoot everybody. The cop was off-duty and had been drinking at a baby shower he was throwing for his step-daughter.

Panas made the mistake of saying the cop wouldn't shoot anybody, and then calling Tepper a pussy. Tepper shot Panas once in the chest piercing a lung. Panas was pronounced dead on arrival at Temple University Hospital. A forensic pathologist testified that Panas was conscious for between two and four minutes while he asphyxiated on his own blood.

Binns said he thought the judge did a great job in the case, and so did the jury. He praised jurors as diligent and "hard-working."

"I wouldn't have done anything differently," he said. "I gave it my best shot."

Binns presented testimony in the case that showed that Tepper was a brutal, volatile reckless cop with a drinking problem. Tepper habitually used poor judgment, along with excessive force, but always got away with it. Testimony in the case showed that in 1995, Tepper engaged in a car chase in pursuit of two 21-year-old men that he suspected of harassing his fiancee. Tepper was off-duty at the time, and was leaving a bar when he began his pursuit. The chase ended when Tepper cut off the two men, jumped out of his car and ran over to beat the 21-year-old driver in the face with the butt end of his gun.

In 2000, according to trial testimony, Tepper beat up two youths who were having a snowball fight. That same year Tepper pointed his gun at a 10-year-old who was dribbling his basketball at night, and disturbing Tepper's sleep. Also in 2000, Officer Tepper punched an 18-year-old in the face after the 18-year-old refused to show Tepper his ID. At the time, Tepper was in plain clothes and pointing a gun at the terrified 18-year-old.

Tepper and other cops then bent the 18-year-old's arm behind his back and slammed him face-down on the sizzling hood of an idling car. The 18-year-old was arrested in a case of mistaken identity and later released; he wound up with a broken arm and second-degree burns on his forehead. According to testimony in the case, Tepper would not let the young man out of jail until he personally apologized to Tepper for being disrespectful to the cop and his fiancee.

Finally, in 2002, Tepper, according to trial testimony, Maced a group of teenagers, including a young woman who was holding a two-year-old infant in her arms. Tepper also pointed a gun at the teenagers and waved it around, saying he would shoot them all. Once again, Tepper was off-duty, not in uniform, and had been drinking. The offense that turned the officer loose on the teenagers at the playground outside his house -- somebody had given Tepper's eight-year-old son a wedgie.

Trial testimony showed that when Tepper was the subject of internal investigations for his actions, he repeatedly lied to his fellow cops, and they knew it, but he was never disciplined for it. After the official investigations were through, department brass all the way up to the police commissioner repeatedly signed off on findings absolving Tepper of any serious charges. Tepper's most extreme punishment was a two-day suspension he received for using vulgar language on duty, and for being in a bar while partially in uniform.

Tepper was a bully who should have never been a cop, Binns told the jury; a lawyer for the city described Tepper as "a drunken idiot." Tepper's targets invariably were young people ranging in age from 10 to 21. But the police department never disciplined Tepper for actions such as threatening his victims with a gun, beating them with his fists or the butt of his gun, and spraying them with Mace.

So the defendant in this case with the deep pockets, the city of Philadelphia, got off light, considering it was ultimately responsible for keeping Tepper in business. If the city wasn't responsible for Tepper, who was? But the jury didn't see it that way; their way of balancing the scales of justice was to award the grieving parents of a murder victim a verdict against a jailed cop that basically amounted to Monopoly money.

After the verdict, the two deputy city solicitors who handled the case, Mark Maguire and Armando Brigandi, were seen smiling in the courthouse lobby and accepting congratulations from well-wishers. They deferred comment to their superior in the city solicitor's office.

For Jimmy Binns, this case was playing against type. The colorful 72-year-old former boxer who played Rocky's lawyer on the silver screen is noted for being a longtime cop booster. Binns founded the Hero Plaque program that honors fallen police officers and firefighters. He's the founder of the Hero Thrill Show, an annual benefit for the children of fallen police officers and firefighters. He also started and funds Cop Wheels Inc., a charity that buys vehicles and bicycles for police departments.

So for Binns to take on the Philadelphia police department was something of a stretch, and it no doubt has cost him some fans. But he signed on to represent the Panas family because he felt it was the right thing to do. Even if he wound up with a disappointing result.

And as he left the building, Binns cautioned that when you walk into a courtroom, it's like climbing into a boxing ring.

"You'd better be prepared to have your ass kicked," he said. Because sooner or later, that's invariably what will happen.

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