As a federal jury on Monday began deciding whether the parents of Seth Adams deserve as much as $20 million from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and Sgt. Michael Custer for the May 2012 shooting death of their son, the overwhelming question it must come to grips with is: Why?
“Why would Seth Adams curse at Sgt. Custer? Why would he attack Sgt. Custer? Why would he turn his back on an armed man?” attorney Richard Giuffreda, who represents Custer and the sheriff’s office, told jurors in closing arguments, outlining their dilemma. “Also, you must also consider, why would Sgt. Custer shoot?”
Attorney Stephan LeClainche, who represents Palm Bay residents Lydia and Richard Adams in the excessive force lawsuit, agreed that the jury faces a unique conundrum. “The why makes no sense,” he said.
Talking privately with attorneys before sending the nine jurors home for the night to resume their deliberations today, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley also talked about the conflicting and convoluted evidence the jury will have to sort out to reach a verdict.
While describing Custer’s testimony last week as “electrifying,” Hurley said it is difficult to believe Custer’s account of Adams’ bizarre behavior when the 24-year-old discovered the officer around midnight in the parking lot of the family-owned A One Stop Garden Shop in Loxahatchee Groves, where Adams lived and worked with his brother and sister-in-law.
Custer, who was working undercover in plainclothes and in an unmarked Ford Explorer, testified that Adams bolted out of his pickup truck, shouting obscenities, when he found Custer at the nursery. He claims Adams grabbed him by the throat. Custer insisted he identified himself as a lawman as he disengaged himself from Adams’ hold. Even though he then had his gun trained on Adams and warned him he would shoot, he said Adams ran for his pickup truck. Fearing Adams had grabbed a gun, Custer said he fired. Adams was unarmed.
“Attempting to understand why anyone would defy those orders is certainly something the jury is wrestling with,” Hurley said.
In an attempt to help jurors make sense of the encounter, both sides offered wildly different views of what happened.
Giuffreda said that Adams, having spent the evening at Boonies Restaurant & Lounge, participating in a beer pong tournament for charity, was drunk when he drove into the parking lot. A test showed Adams had a blood-alcohol level of 0.131 percent, almost twice the 0.08 percent at which a Florida driver is considered impaired. Having worked all day at the nursery, Adams was also tired. And he was missing his girlfriend, who had recently left town to compete in dressage horseback riding competitions in the Northeast.
“Now he has to deal with this jerk or this trespasser?” the sheriff’s office attorney said of Adams’ reaction to finding Custer in the garden center parking lot. “It could explain why he got mad at Sgt. Custer.”
Attorney Wallace McCall, who also represents Adams’ parents, scoffed at Giuffreda’s theory. He and LeClainche questioned the accuracy of the blood-alcohol test, pointing out it was taken after Adams had lost massive amounts of blood.
Further, McCall said, there was no evidence Adams was intoxicated when he left Boonies. He had a lengthy conversation with a friend about her love-life and a friendly conversation with the bar manager, he said. On his way home, Adams called his girlfriend and left her a sweet message. “He just wanted to go to bed,” McCall said.
Calling Custer a coward and a bully, McCall accused the sheriff’s sergeant of lying about what happened. “Your job is to untangle Sgt. Custer’s web of lies because a shooting based on a lie cannot be justified,” he said.
He asked jurors to award each of Adams’ parents between $5 million and $10 million.
When originally questioned, Custer said Adams attacked him, McCall said. Later, when Custer learned that video cameras outside the garden center weren’t real ones, he concocted the tale about Adams running for his truck.
Custer was familiar with such a scenario, McCall said. As a training officer, Custer had shown fellow deputies a video of a Georgia police officer who was killed when he waited to see what a man was getting out of his truck. In that case, the man grabbed a rifle and killed the officer. However, McCall said, the lesson Custer taught deputies was: Had the officer shot first, the shooting would have been deemed justified.
While Custer testified that he feared Adams was part of the Safe Boys gang he was investigating, he didn’t mention that when he was initially interviewed by a detective who was investigating the shooting.
Custer has the upper hand because — with Seth dead — he’s the only one who knows what really happened, McCall said. “But the physical evidence will tell you Seth’s side of the story,” the Adams family lawyer said.
Contrary to Custer’s claims that he shot Adams when the young man wheeled out of the truck, three shell casings and a bullet fragment were found behind Adams’ truck. A blood trail also led from the back of the truck to inside the nursery where Adams collapsed. No blood was found on the door frame or inside the cab.
Giuffreda countered that the quickness of Adams’ movement led to the blood being spilled behind the truck. Pinned against the door frame, Adams spun toward Custer and kept moving toward the rear of the truck as Custer backed away, firing his weapon. That’s why, Giuffreda said, a large pool of blood and the bullet casings were found near the back of the truck.
The sheriff’s office attorney acknowledged that parts of Custer’s story have changed and that much of his account doesn’t match the physical evidence, but he attributed the inconsistencies to extreme stress.
“His memory, his sense of time and distance would be affected in the tunnel-vision you get in a life or death situation,” Giuffreda said.
But, McCall and LeClainche said, tunnel-vision doesn’t explain why Custer’s cell phone mysteriously disappeared when he was ordered to turn it in so it could be examined.
“We’ll never know, but we can presume there were texts to people about what he should say and maybe the intimidation of others about what they should say,” McCall said, adding that Custer’s higher-ups helped him bury the phone.
Giuffreda disputed that claim. He attributed the phone’s disappearance to a bureaucratic mistake, not an organized conspiracy.
In the end, both sides agreed that the case is a difficult one. Many pieces of the complex puzzle just don’t add up, they acknowledged.
That’s why, McCall and LeClainche insisted, Custer is lying. That’s why, Giuffreda concluded, Custer is telling the truth.
“Why would Sgt. Custer shoot Seth Adams for doing nothing?” Giuffreda asked. “That makes no sense. It didn’t happen.”