A federal judge has set a trial date for the civil suit against a white Bellaire police officer who shot an unarmed black man in his parents' driveway.
A federal magistrate on Wednesday put Robbie Tolan's lawsuit against Bellaire police officer Jeffrey Cotton on course for a September 2015 trial, court records show. Tolan's family filed the lawsuit in 2009 shortly after a jury acquitted Cotton on state charges of first-degree aggravated assault. The civil suit had stalled until a May 2014 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned a lower court ruling dismissing the claims against Cotton. In June, a three-judge panel on the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court, paving the way for an eventual courtroom showdown.
The 2008 shooting garnered national headlines, serving for some as another example of near-fatal racial profiling by white cops. Bellaire police have insisted that Cotton mistakenly shot Tolan, fearing he was armed and driving a stolen a car. The day before Wednesday's court hearing, Tolan's supporters rallied outside Houston's federal courthouse. Benjamin Crump, an attorney who has represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, is now listed as an attorney for Tolan (who just so happens to be the son of former St. Louis Cardinal and Cincinnati Red Bobby Tolan).
Robbie Tolan, then 23, and his cousin had just parked their SUV outside Tolan's parents' house in the early morning hours of Dec. 31, 2008, when Officer John C. Edwards pulled up behind their vehicle. Edwards ran the SUV's license plate, but incorrectly entered the number and pulled up a report of a stolen car, according to the lawsuit.
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Edwards approached Tolan and his cousin with his gun drawn, ordering them to the ground. It was then that Cotton arrived on scene as backup. When Tolan's parents heard the commotion, they ran outside in their pajamas, telling the officers that the men were family, that they lived at the house, and that the car was not stolen.
When Tolan's mother continued to protest, Cotton grabbed her arm and "threw her against the Tolans' garage," the lawsuit alleges. Tolan saw Cotton grab his mother, turned toward the officer, and - while still on the ground - said, "Get your fucking hands off my mom," according to the lawsuit. It was then that Cotton drew his gun and shot Tolan in the chest, just below his right nipple. The lawsuit argues that the trajectory of the bullet - it traveled down through Tolan's chest, piercing and collapsing his right lung before lodging in his liver - proves Tolan was still on the ground when Cotton shot him.
Tolan's lawsuit makes a number of explosive allegations against the Bellaire Police Department (you can read them in the original complaint here). Tolan also claims he heard Cotton tell fellow officers at the scene, "We have to get our stories straight."