WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – A Florida judge declared a mistrial Wednesday in a lawsuit over the killing of an unarmed man by a sheriff's deputy after jurors said they could not reach a verdict.
The five-man, four-woman panel had deliberated about 14 hours over three days in the death of Seth Adams at the hands of Palm Beach County Sgt. Michael Custer.
Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley in West Palm Beach said, "Sometimes you can't get a unanimous verdict on a difficult case, even after the attorneys have marshaled all the evidence." He told jurors they could not have been more conscientious and diligent.
There was no dispute that Custer shot Adams on May 16, 2012, in the parking lot of the nursery where the 24-year-old lived and worked.
Custer testified that Adams cursed him and grabbed him by the throat before rummaging through his truck's cab as if seeking a weapon. He said he fired when Adams spun toward him.
The Adams family's attorneys argued the physical evidence disproved Custer's testimony.
Working in plainclothes, Custer had parked his unmarked SUV in the lot at One Stop Garden shop at about 11 p.m. so he could watch a nearby road. He was supervising surveillance on a gang of ATM thieves, all white men in their 20s like Adams.
When Adams arrived home from a bar, he pulled his small Ford pickup up about 15 feet from Custer's SUV. Tests conducted after the shooting showed his blood-alcohol content at 0.13, over Florida's 0.08 limit for driving. The family disputes that, saying his blood loss may have skewed the results.
Custer was cleared criminally after an investigation that was blasted as inept by the judge who presided over trial in the lawsuit. Adams had no criminal history.
Custer testified that Adams immediately began cursing him, making him think he might be a member of the gang sent to distract him. He said that after they both got out of their vehicles, Adams rushed toward him and grabbed him by the throat. He said he fought off Adams, pulled his gun and ordered Adams to the ground. Instead, he said Adams ran back to his truck's cab.
Custer said he kicked the door closed on Adams, pinning him, but he still began rummaging through the cab as if he were retrieving a weapon. He said he grabbed Adams by the neck and warned him he was about to be shot. He said when Adams spun toward him and yelled another obscenity, he fired four shots, hitting Adams in the right forearm and twice in the chest. Adams stumbled into the nursery before collapsing. He died about two hours later during surgery.
The Adamses' attorneys had argued the evidence disproved Custer's testimony, saying it showed Adams was shot behind the truck and that there was no immediate confrontation between the two. The bullet that tore through his forearm was found behind the truck, not inside the cab where it should have been if Custer's story were true, they argued. The blood trail also appeared to begin behind the truck.
Also, a member of Custer's surveillance team had said he drove past the parking lot about a minute before the shooting and saw both men outside their vehicles. Detective Kevin Drummond testified Adams was facing into the nursery and then turned his head toward Custer as if in response to something the sergeant said. He said he heard no yelling and saw nothing that made him think Custer was endangered, so he didn't stop.
Witnesses at the bar said Adams had been in a good mood when he left 10 minutes before the shooting.