- Associated Press - Monday, March 13, 2017

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) - A Florida sheriff’s deputy shot an unarmed nurseryman not because he was threatened but because he’s “a coward,” an attorney for the man’s family told a federal civil jury Monday.

Attorney Wallace McCall said during closing arguments that Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Custer shot Seth Adams five years ago because he wrongly thought he was a member of the gang he was surveilling and then concocted a story to cover up his error. Dick and Lydia Adams allege in their lawsuit that the May 16, 2012, shooting was unjustified and are seeking $10 million to $20 million.

“Oh what a tangled web we weave when we first practice to deceive,” McCall told the five-man, four-woman jury. “Your job as jurors is to untangle Sgt. Custer’s lies because a shooting based on a web of lies cannot be justified.”

But attorney Richard Giuffreda, who is defending Custer and the sheriff’s office, said the evidence supports Custer’s statement that he shot Adams, 24, because the nurseryman had grabbed him by the neck and then ran back to his truck as if retrieving a weapon. He pointed to the dent in the truck’s driver door that Custer said he kicked in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Adams out of the cab.

“If Sgt. Custer made this up, that there was no choke, no door kick, don’t you think he would have come up with an answer for everything?” Giuffreda told the jury. He said that if Custer is a coward, how come he never shot anyone in his previous 20 years in law enforcement as a patrol officer and an undercover operative.

Working in plain clothes, Custer parked his unmarked SUV in the lot at One Stop Garden shop at about 11 p.m. so he could watch a nearby road. He was supervising surveillance on a gang of ATM thieves, all white males in their 20s like Adams. He lived on the property with his brother and sister-in-law.

When Adams arrived home from a bar, he pulled his small Ford pickup up about 15 feet from Custer’s SUV. Tests conducted after the shooting showed his blood-alcohol content at 0.13, over Florida’s 0.08 limit for driving. The family disputes that, saying his blood loss may have skewed the results.

Custer was cleared criminally after an investigation that was blasted as inept by the judge presiding over this trial. Adams had no criminal history.

Custer testified that the 6-foot-4 Adams immediately began cursing the officer, making him think he might be a member of the gang sent to distract him. He said that after they both got out of their vehicles, Adams rushed toward him and grabbed him by the throat. Custer, who is 5-foot-8, said he fought off Adams, pulled his gun and ordered Adams to the ground. Instead, he says Adams ran back to his truck’s cab.

Custer said he kicked the door closed on Adams, pinning him, but he still began rummaging through the cab as if he were retrieving a weapon. He said he grabbed Adams by the neck and warned him he was about to be shot. He said when Adams spun toward him and yelled another obscenity, he fired four shots, hitting Adams in the right forearm and twice in the chest. Adams stumbled into the nursery before collapsing. He died about two hours later during surgery.

Giuffreda argued that the jury shouldn’t focus on any minor discrepancies in Custer’s testimony, that he feared for his life and can’t be expected to know precisely where Adams was standing or what direction he was firing.

“In a life-or-death situation, his sense of time, his sense of distance, his sense of speed would have been distorted,” Giuffreda said.

But McCall argued the evidence disproved Custer’s testimony, saying it shows Adams was shot behind the truck and that there was no immediate confrontation between the two. The bullet that tore through his forearm was found behind the truck, not inside the cab where it should have been if Custer’s story were true, he argued. The blood trail also appeared to begin behind the truck.

In addition, a member of Custer’s surveillance team said he drove past the parking lot about a minute before the shooting and saw both men outside their vehicles. Detective Kevin Drummond testified Adams was facing into the nursery and then turned his head toward Custer as if in response to something the sergeant said. He said he heard no yelling and saw nothing that made him think Custer was endangered, so he didn’t stop.

Witnesses at the bar said Adams had been in a good mood when he left 10 minutes before the shooting.

Giuffreda said the bullet could have gone through Adams‘ forearm and skipped under the truck. He said Adams, with his long strides, could have moved several feet before he began bleeding. He said Adams‘ DNA was found on Custer’s neck, showing he grabbed the deputy.

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