A Civil Action

Despite the county's outlook, the Oregon police shooting case is still very much alive

Jurors in the criminal trial against Willis told prosecutors they voted to acquit because they believed the officer had to enter the apartment to help protect the other cops who went in. He testified they feared that the suspect was going for a gun or was going to destroy drugs.

While significant differences exist between criminal and civil law, that general defense was tried in the civil case as well. Under some circumstances cops can enter without warrant or consent, such as in urgent situations, but Judge Lake said that this particular raid wasn't one of them, because Baxter had been told to fall down and block the doorway so they could get in.

"In July of 1998 it was clearly established that police officers could not rely on exigent [urgent] circumstances to justify a warrantless entry into a home when the alleged exigency was manufactured by the officers' voluntary decision to confront the residents instead of keeping watch while seeking a warrant," his ruling stated.

"I think it's pretty clear that this lays to rest any notion that the officers' excuses for entering the apartment [are] going to pass muster," says plaintiffs' attorney Mithoff.

Thomas expects his appeal, which he said could reach the U.S. Supreme Court, to stall the civil trial a year. It was originally to begin next summer.

A federal investigation is also continuing in the case. The action by Harris County was wrapped in secrecy for months as a state district court grand jury considered the allegations.

Federal Judge Lake's ruling, however, challenged the need for continued secrecy of the documents filed in the civil case. "The court questions why these materials should remain under seal," he wrote. He advised attorneys of a Friday hearing on releasing the documents to the public.

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