Jury awards Russ family $9.6 million

Elaine Helm

A jury awarded $9.6 million Friday to the young son of former Northwestern football player Robert Russ, who was shot to death by a Chicago police officer just two weeks before he was to graduate in 1999.

After 3 1/2 days of deliberations, the jury in the civil suit upheld the assertion of Russ’ mother, Vera Love, who said the officer broke departmental rules and was “out of control” when he shot her unarmed son.

Prosecutors had contended that the officer’s gun went off during a struggle with Russ.

Russ’ girlfriend, Erin Lewis, was six months pregnant with his child when Russ was shot and killed June 5, 1999, in a confrontation with officer Van B. Watts IV after a high-speed chase on the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Donald Shapiro, the attorney who represented Russ’ estate, said jurors told him after the verdict was announced that they spent much of their time deciding on the amount of compensation rather than wavering about Watts’ responsibility for Russ’ death.

Shapiro also said he believed the testimony of Watts and other eyewitnesses was pivotal in the jury’s decision.

“The jury was unanimous from the start that they didn’t believe Watts and believed that he wrongfully shot and killed Russ,” Shapiro said Sunday.

“After they got through hearing evidence and arguments,” he added, “they were absolutely convinced that he was guilty.”

Although Shapiro said Russ’ family was “vindicated” by the judgement, he also said Love still wants Watts to be removed from his position with the Chicago Police Department. Love has filed a separate wrongful death lawsuit in federal court.

Less than 24 hours before Russ died, another unarmed motorist, LaTanya Haggerty, was shot and killed by another Chicago police officer.

Haggerty’s family negotiated an $18-million settlement from the city in a wrongful death lawsuit in 2001.

Prosecutors declined to press criminal charges against the officers in both cases.

Mark Iris, an NU political science lecturer, said the sizes of the Haggerty settlement and the Russ judgement are unusual, although numerous civil cases are filed each year stemming from alleged police misconduct.

Sometimes, Iris said, such cases result in changes in police procedures or regulations, but other times the cases fail to provoke a re-evaluation of the status quo.

“Sometimes the civil lawsuits don’t result in any change, in part because in the eyes of the police management and the eyes of the public, nothing wrong was done,” said Iris, who also is executive director for the Chicago Police Board, although he said he was not speaking on the board’s behalf.

Prosecutors in the Russ case acknowledged that the officer who shot Russ violated regulations by using the butt of his gun to break out a rear window of Russ’ car.

They also maintained, however, that Russ was partially responsible for the officer’s use of lethal force because tests revealed gunpowder residue on Russ’ hands — evidence that he grabbed at the officer’s gun after he was ordered to exit the car.

“It’s certainly not what anyone would hold up as quality police work,” Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine told the Associated Press. “But there was no evidence to show criminal intent on the part of the officers.”

Lawyers arguing on behalf of Russ’ son produced experts and eyewitnesses who testified that the officer who shot Russ not only violated police protocols but also incorrectly asserted that Russ tried to grab the gun from his hands.

Jurors in the case rejected the idea that the gun went off during a struggle, according to foreman Darnell Palmer, a Chicago school teacher.

“You could just tell they were all lying,” Palmer told the AP.

The Daily’s Jim Martinho and the Associated Press contributed to this report.