Seth Adams’ parents to keep up fight; PBSO calls mistrial ‘unfortunate’

Before collapsing tearfully into the arms of a friend who was waiting outside a federal courtroom on Wednesday afternoon, Lydia Adams did a slight fist pump.

While a jury, after nearly 14 hours of deliberation during three days, couldn’t agree about whether Palm Beach County sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Custer used excessive force in May 2012 when he fatally shot her 24-year-old son, Seth, most agreed the veteran officer had done just that.

In answer to an unusual request from U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley after he declared a mistrial, the jury revealed it had voted 7-2 that Custer had no reason to use deadly force when he encountered Adams outside the family-owned A One Stop Garden Shop in Loxahatchee Groves, where the young man lived and worked with his brother and sister-in-law.

Further, eight of the nine jurors agreed Custer had acted in bad faith and intentionally destroyed his department-issued cell phone to prevent its damning text messages from being revealed.

While far from the $10 million to $20 million Lydia and Richard Adams had sought, the deeply religious Palm Bay couple said they were “disappointed” but not daunted by the jury’s failure to reach a unanimous verdict, making it impossible for them to even reach the issue of damages.

“This has been and continues to be a spiritual battle against the forces of evil,” Richard Adams told reporters. “We’re grateful Seth’s story has been told. We look forward to trying it again.”

The couple said the month-long trial wasn’t just about seeking justice for their son. They said they were fighting for countless others who have lost loved ones to police shootings.

“We’re not done. We’re not done,” Lydia Adams said as she wiped away tears. “We can’t bring Seth back. We lost on May 17, 2012 when Seth was taken from us. We’ve spent five years trying to clean up the mess and shine the light on what’s going on in our communities and in our nation. I’m not stopping. You haven’t seen the last of me.”

She said she is still stung that Custer has never expressed any remorse for shooting her son when he returned home near midnight to find the officer, working undercover, in the garden shop’s parking lot. Wednesday was no different.

Custer, flanked by his attorneys, who also represented the sheriff’s office, said nothing when reporters asked him for comment when he left the courthouse as the Adams’ family looked on. Later, in a statement, the sheriff’s office called the jury’s failure to reach a decision “unfortunate.”

It lauded Custer as a good officer who fired only because he believed his life was in danger. It also acknowledged the Adams’ family’s suffering.

“There are no winners in this civil trial,” the office wrote. “The Adams family lost a son, and Sgt. Custer and his family have endured a great deal of stress and emotional pressure. No one wants this to happen to any family.”

Mindful that Judge Hurley this past week blasted the investigation as “slipshod and shoddy” and “a disgrace,” and that the Adams’ family and their attorneys claimed top brass conspired to cover up the truth, the sheriff’s office defended its actions.

In the statement, it pointed out the Florida Department of Law Enforcement signed off on its work and that the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office concluded Custer’s actions were justified.

Lydia Adams said she hopes that will change. She said she and her husband will again ask State Attorney Dave Aronberg to reopen the investigation into what really happened.

Their attorney, Wallace McCall, said the jury’s lopsided votes should “send a loud and clear message” to the sheriff’s office. “The investigation was a joke. It was a cover-up,” he said. “They botched the whole investigation and they did it on purpose.”

The sheriff’s office should follow the lead of Palm Beach Gardens police, he said. After 31-year-old Lake Worth area drummer Corey Jones was shot by Gardens police Officer Nouman Raja in October 2015, it asked the sheriff’s office to investigate. Raja, who was fired, was ultimately charged with manslaughter and attempted murder in Jones’ death.

“They have to have an independent agency investigate every officer-involved shooting,” McCall said.

Jurors declined comment. One female juror said she “felt for them” — referring to the Adams’ family. A male juror said simply, “We just couldn’t reach a decision.”

All agreed the jurors had a monumental task sorting out the sharply conflicting evidence. Physical evidence — a blood trail, bullet casings and a bullet fragment — contradicted Custer’s account.

The officer, who was wearing plainclothes and driving an unmarked Ford Explorer, claims Adams attacked him viciously even after he identified himself as a lawman. Shouting obscenities, Adams grabbed him by the throat, Custer said.

After breaking free of the choke-hold, he said he managed to pull out his Glock handgun and ordered Adams to the ground. Instead, Custer claims, Adams bolted for his pickup truck. Custer said he had Adams pinned in the truck’s door frame when Adams wheeled toward him. Fearing Adams had grabbed a gun, he fired, shooting Adams once in the arm and twice in the chest. Adams, who died in surgery, was unarmed.

The physical evidence was found at the back of the truck, feet from where Custer claimed the shooting took place. No blood was found inside Adams’ pickup, on the door or its frame.

Further, Adams’ brother and sister-in-law testified that they and Seth regularly encountered motorists in the parking lot after hours. They just asked them to move on.

McCall argued that no one, much less Adams, who was described as an easygoing guy who loved cats and cooking, would turn into a crazed lunatic.

Attorney Richard Giuffreda, who represents Custer and the sheriff’s office, countered that Adams’ was drunk, tired and missed his girlfriend who was out of town. Having spent the evening at Boonies Restaurant & Lounge, participating in a beer pong tournament for charity, his judgment was impaired and Adams became enraged to find a stranger, even a cop, in the parking lot, he claimed.

Tests showed Adams’ blood-alcohol level was 0.131 percent — higher than the 0.08 percent at which Florida drivers are presumed to be intoxicated. But, McCall argued, the results were likely elevated because of the massive amount of blood Adams lost. Even if accurate, it wouldn’t explain Adams’ bizarre behavior.

Instead, he said, Custer made up the story. After refusing to give a statement on the night of the shooting, Custer concocted the tale after learning that video cameras outside the garden center were fake and didn’t record what happened.

Then, McCall argued, Custer and his higher ups conspired to bury key evidence. While a crime-scene investigator saw Custer’s cell phone under the seat of his SUV, Sgt. Richard McAfee told her not to take it as evidence. A month later, when Custer was ordered to turn it in so text messages could be retrieved, it disappeared.

At about the same time, in an email, McAfee referred to an “evil plan.” The plan, McCall said, was to destroy the phone.

McAfee testified that the “evil plan” had nothing to do with the cell phone. Giuffreda argued that the phone was simply swept up in the sheriff’s bureaucracy.

In revealing its vote, the jury acknowledged that all but one of the jurors thought Custer intentionally destroyed the phone. That meant, according to the jury instructions, that they believed it contained damaging evidence against Custer.

To Adams’ parents, that decision was a hollow victory. For weeks, they listened as their son was vilified by attorneys representing Custer and the sheriff’s office. They have to continue their daily lives, never knowing what really happened. But, both said, that’s why they will keep fighting.

“Seth was a good young man,” Lydia Adams said, struggling through tears. “He had character. He was a stellar human being. That’s the part we want honored.”

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