Officer stands trial in 95-year-old’s beanbag shooting death

MARKHAM, Ill. (AP) — A suburban Chicago police officer had better and safer options than to fire beanbags to subdue a confused, knife-wielding 95-year-old World War II veteran, a prosecutor told the court Tuesday at the outset of the officer’s trial on a felony reckless conduct charge in the man’s death.

With all of their police equipment, training and “common sense,” Craig Taylor and the other Park Forest officers didn’t have to storm into John Wrana’s room at an assisted living center on July 26, 2013, Cook County State’s Attorney Lynn McCarthy said during her opening statements. They did so, though, and Taylor ended up firing five beanbags at Wrana, including the fatal one that struck his abdomen and caused internal bleeding, she said.

Taylor’s attorney, Terry Ekl, countered that Taylor did what he was trained to do to subdue a dangerous suspect who was coming at him with a knife. Wrana was determined enough that he kept coming at Taylor with a knife “over his head” until the final shot knocked it from his hand, Ekl told Judge Luciano Panici, who will decide the case.

Taylor, 43, could face up to three years in prison if he’s convicted. His trial comes amid heightened scrutiny of the use of deadly force by U.S. police departments, and there was a strong show of support by Taylor’s fellow officers Tuesday at the courthouse in Markham.

Unlike many criminal trials where there is a disagreement over exactly what happened, the prosecution and defense in Taylor’s trial agreed on the basic facts of the case in their opening statements.

Taylor was one of several officers dispatched to the facility where Wrana lived after a staff member reported that Wrana had become combative with emergency workers.

Wrana had hit a staffer with his cane and was brandishing the cane and a 2-foot long shoehorn. After officers left the room, they soon returned, with one carrying a Taser, another carrying a shield and Taylor armed with a 12 gauge shotgun that shoots beanbags. It was then that Wrana threatened the officers and refused to obey their order to drop a knife he had picked up.

One officer fired the Taser at Wrana, but missed. When Wrana moved toward Taylor with a knife, Taylor fired his weapon five times, according to prosecutors.

All of the shots were fired from no more than 8 feet away, said McCarthy, who told Panici that the “optimum distance” of 15 to 60 feet is spelled out in training standards and reminded the judge that each “projectile struck the 5-feet-five, 150 pound Wrana at about 190 miles per hour.

Wrana died from internal bleeding, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office, which ruled his death a homicide.

One officer who showed to court in support of Taylor said that Taylor’s arrest is confusing to other police officers.

“There’s an outcry now for less lethal force in dealing with subjects and he used less lethal force,” said Mitchell Davis, the police chief in the nearby suburb of Robbins who once worked as an officer in Park Forest and said he knows Taylor. Davis said that while the incident had a “tragic outcome,” he believes Taylor acted properly.

As a result, he said, police officers are watching the case closely. But this case has not generated the kind of emotion that killings of unarmed black men, specifically in New York’s Staten Island and in Ferguson, Mo. Though Taylor is black and Wrana was white, neither attorney suggested race played any role in the shooting. Another factor is that the case is so unusual.

“This is so far afield from other cases that I don’t think it will have any wide ranging effect on police or have be any kind of deterrent to on-duty misconduct,” said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who has studied and written about police abuse.

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