Civil case over fatal shooting by officer continues

Frank Tepper is serving life for first-degree murder.
Frank Tepper is serving life for first-degree murder.
Posted: December 12, 2012

A federal jury ended its first day of deliberations Monday without resolving a claim that the City of Philadelphia ignored signs that Officer Frank Tepper was a reckless and dangerous policeman before he fatally shot a 21-year-old man outside his Port Richmond home in 2009.

After listening to closing arguments and deliberating three hours, the panel sent a question late in the day to U.S. District Judge Legrome D. Davis. The judge didn't disclose the nature of the question but told the jury he and the lawyers would answer it when they return Tuesday.

The civil-rights case, brought by the parents of William Panas Jr., represents a coda of sorts to one of the more divisive cases involving city police.

Tepper had 16 years on the force - and dozens of mentions in Internal Affairs files - when he emerged from his Elkhart Street home the night of Nov. 21, 2009, to disperse a group of young men arguing. Tepper was waving a gun and may have identified himself as an officer, witnesses said.

Panas told the others not to worry. "He won't shoot anybody," Panas said. Tepper then turned toward the young man and fired into his chest.

Convicted in February of first-degree murder, Tepper, 46, is serving life in prison. He made no attempt to contest the civil claim and has not attended the trial.

But the panel of five women and three men has been asked to resolve larger questions: Was Tepper acting as an officer that evening? If so, do the city and the Police Department deserve some of the blame?

James J. Binns, the lawyer for Panas' parents, told jurors that the city and Police Department bosses showed "deliberate indifference" by ignoring years of red flags and complaints about the officer's conduct or meting out only cursory punishments. They are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

Binns called a parade of witnesses in the weeklong trial who described a half-dozen incidents between 1995 and 2002 in which Tepper, often fueled by alcohol, brandished his badge or a gun and harassed or assaulted young men in and around his neighborhood but evaded serious disciplinary action.

"He didn't become a drunken idiot at 11 o'clock" the night of Panas' death, Binns argued, echoing the term lawyers for the city used to describe Tepper in their opening argument. "The city knew that he was a drunken idiot for the entirety of his career."

Binns cited statements from 10 witnesses at the scene who said Tepper identified himself as a police officer or flashed his badge on the night he shot Panas.

Mark Maguire, a deputy city solicitor, argued that most of those witnesses were Tepper's relatives, people with incentive to portray the shooting as self-defense by an officer doing his job.

Maguire noted that nine other witnesses who were in the crowd of young men gave statements in which they said they did not recall Tepper identifying himself as an officer.

According to Maguire, Tepper had just seven citizen complaints over 16 years on the force - a relatively small number - and none in the seven years before Panas was killed.

"Nothing about that says he's a problem officer," Maguire told jurors. "Nothing about that says he's likely to commit murder."

Tepper was drunk, off-duty, and out of uniform when he grabbed his personal gun and stormed outside his house, Maguire said. He wasn't arresting anyone, trying to prevent a crime, preserve the peace, or protect property or a person - in other words, he was not acting as a police officer, he said.

Maguire called the killing a senseless tragedy but reminded jurors that their decision cannot be guided by sympathy.

"What Mr. and Mrs. Panas want is impossible for anyone to give them," he told jurors. "What they are asking you to do isn't allowable under the law."


Contact John P. Martin at 215-925-2649, at jmartin@phillynews.com, or @JPMartinInky on Twitter.

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