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Judge Dismisses Suit Over 2011 Fatal Shooting By BART Officer

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A protestor holds up a picture of Charles Hill during a demonstration at the Civic Center BART station on July 11, 2011. The group “No Justice, No BART” is protesting July 3, 2011 shooting death of Hill by BART Police officers. (CBS)

A protestor holds up a picture of Charles Hill during a demonstration at the Civic Center BART station on July 11, 2011. The group “No Justice, No BART” is protesting July 3, 2011 shooting death of Hill by BART Police officers. (CBS)

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OAKLAND (CBS SF) — A civil rights lawsuit filed by the family of a homeless man fatally shot by a BART police officer at a San Francisco station two years ago has been dismissed by a federal magistrate in Oakland.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu said in a summary judgment ruling last week that former BART Police Officer James Crowell’s “use of deadly force was objectively reasonable” when he fired three shots at Charles Hill, 45, at BART’s Civic Center Station on July 3, 2011.

Ryu said Hill had thrown a glass bottle at Crowell and another officer and was moving his arm forward to throw a knife from about 15 feet away when Crowell fired the first of the three shots.

“A reasonable officer in that situation could believe that he was in danger of being hit by a knife after having had a bottle thrown at him,” Ryu wrote.

Hill died of his wounds later that evening.

Lawyers for his estate did not dispute that Hill threw a knife at Crowell, but contended that Crowell used unconstitutional excessive force and that he and his partner, BART Police Officer Myron Lee, should have done more to defuse the situation.

Crowell, who later left BART to become an FBI agent, and Lee had responded to reports of a possibly intoxicated man at the station around 9:45 p.m. on the eve of Independence Day.

Ryu’s decision dismisses the lawsuit without a trial. The defendants in the lawsuit filed in January 2012 were Crowell, Lee, BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey and BART.

John Burris, a lawyer for Hill’s family, said a possible appeal is under discussion, but said, “Unless the family is strongly interested in an appeal, this case is effectively over.

“In our view, the officers escalated the conflict. If they had been more judicious in their approach and calmed down the situation, there never would have been a shooting,” Burris maintained.

Hill’s closest living relative is a brother on the East Coast, Burris said.

“He was a homeless person and we felt he deserved his day in court,” the attorney said.

Ryu based her ruling on a set of facts agreed to by both sides, pretrial testimony by witnesses including Crowell and Lee, and a BART surveillance video that shows a flying object—the knife—heading toward Crowell.

The silent video does not show Hill, but shows Crowell drawing his gun, appearing to speak twice, and then firing a shot seven-tenths of a second before the flying knife appears in video camera range near Crowell, Ryu wrote.

An investigation by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon concluded last year that Crowell “acted lawfully in self-defense.”

Gascon said in a report to Police Chief Greg Suhr that Hill was high on alcohol, methamphetamine and synthetic marijuana. The bottle he threw at the two men contained vodka, Gascon said.

The bottle hit a metal sign between the two officers and broke, causing Lee to slip and fall on the liquid on the station platform, according to Ryu’s decision.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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