“Bizarre and unusual” judge says of PBSO claims in Seth Adams’ death

When Lydia Adams rushed to St. Mary’s Medical Center nearly five years ago after learning her son, Seth, had been shot by a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy, she didn’t know he was dead.

Seeing his bare, blood-covered body on a gurney, she ran to him. Instantly, she says, she was grabbed by a sheriff’s crime scene investigator and thrown to the floor.

“Get away. He’s evidence,” her attorney Wallace McCall said the investigator told Adams.

While the account is disturbing and possibly damning for the sheriff’s office, a federal judge on Wednesday ruled that a jury will hear about it when a multi-million-dollar wrongful death lawsuit that Adams’ parents filed against the department and sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Custer goes to trial next week.

“It’s just a horrible, horrible aftermath to what was a tragedy to begin with,” said U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley.

Attorneys representing Custer and the sheriff’s office may present testimony that the investigator was just doing her job and that Lydia Adams fell and wasn’t pushed to the floor, he also ruled.

But, like several decisions he made during the nearly daylong hearing to settle disputes over what evidence will be presented, he said it will be up to the jury to decide. And, he said, the jury’s job won’t be easy.

The jury will have to sort through what Hurley described as “bizarre and unusual” accounts of what unfolded in May 2012 when Seth Adams returned home near midnight to find Custer in the parking lot of his family’s A One Stop Garden Shop on Okeechobee Boulevard, where he also lived. There are also sharply differing views about the aftermath, including the strange disappearance of Custer’s cell phone and a supervisor’s email about an “evil plan.”

Neither Custer nor anyone from the sheriff’s office attended the hearing. Lydia and Richard Adams sat in the audience. Richard Adams balanced a Bible on a rail separating him from his attorneys.

While the trial will center on Custer’s actions, if the jury finds he used excessive force and awards damages, the tax-funded sheriff’s office will also be responsible to pay the money.

Custer, who was wearing plainclothes and in an unmarked SUV, claims he told Adams he was a sheriff’s deputy, working a surveillance detail in Loxahatchee Groves, his attorneys said. Despite that, the 24-year-old grabbed him by the throat. After they tussled, Custer claims Adams ran to his pickup truck and reached into the glove box. Fearing Adams was grabbing a gun, Custer said he fired the fatal shots.

Hurley said of Custer’s account: “The activity ascribed to Seth Adams is unusual or bizarre,” he said. “The idea that a person, confronting an individual who identifies himself as a police officer, would assault the police office by grabbing him by the throat. It’s an extraordinary circumstance. It’s not that it couldn’t happen, but it’s unusual.”

McCall said he will present evidence to prove Adams was at the back of his truck when Custer fired.

In hopes of establishing a motive, attorneys representing the sheriff’s office and Custer asked they be allowed to tell jurors that Adams supported Rand Paul, or perhaps his father, Ron, in their separate presidential campaigns.

A pro-Paul bumper sticker on Adams’ truck shows a Libertarian, anti-big-government bent, said attorney Richard Giuffreda. It may have caused Adams to have an unusually strong reaction to Custer, he said.

Ruling that Adams’ political leanings are unclear and irrelevant, Hurley rejected the request. For similar reasons, he denied Giuffreda’s motion to tell jurors that Adams had been arrested in 2007 on minor charges, including under-age drinking and an open container violation, in Brevard County.

The jury, however, will see Adams’ truck, and its bumper sticker, during the trial.

A key defeat for Custer and the sheriff’s office came when Hurley agreed attorneys representing the Adamses could tell jurors about Custer’s missing cell phone. He also said jurors could be told about an email a sheriff’s sergeant wrote about an “evil plan.” McCall claims it’s a clear instruction to cover up Custer’s actions.

While Custer claims his phone was inadvertently destroyed after he turned it in to be used as evidence, McCall says it was intentionally dumped to hide damaging information it contained. Again, Hurley ruled that the warring versions of events would be decided by the jury.

“The jury is entitled to be told that if they find Sgt. Custer didn’t turn in the phone as directed, they can conclude it was because it contained hurtful or averse information,” Hurley said.

Likewise, he said, an email, written by Custer’s supervisor, Sgt. Richard McAfee, could be shown to the jury. In it, McAfee wrote, “I told you this is how we roll. … Just get my evil plan started!”

PBSO attorneys claim McAfee was referring to a plan to get additional help in the unit. The phone, they said, was inadvertently destroyed by employees in the agency’s communications unit, who didn’t know it was to be preserved as evidence.

Even if a jury believes McCall’s claims the Custer’s phone was destroyed as part of an “evil plan,” they don’t have to conclude that means Custer used excessive force when he fatally shot Adams, Hurley said. “It’s simply a factor for them to consider,” he said.

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