Federal Judge Knocks Down Damages But Upholds Key Elements in Cleveland Police Shooting Case

Kenny Smith
Kenny Smith
The Kenny Smith police shooting case — a case that is wildly, head-smackingly strange and convoluted and only getting weirder — received another wrinkle today.

In federal court, U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver released a decision this afternoon tying up some loose legal ends regarding the trial last year that found Cleveland Police Officer Roger Jones liable for the death of the 20-year-old local rapper. The most eyeball-grabbing piece of the legalese is Oliver's decision to drop the total amount of money awarded Smith's family due to his murder: instead of the $5.5 million award by the jury for Smith's wrongful death, Oliver cut the money to $4 million. Smith's family can either take it, or go back to trial. 

"I'm disappointed, but I'm also relieved," Terry Gilbert, Smith's attorney, told Scene this afternoon. "It's still a validation, and it's still significant compensation. From what I know, it's still the largest police shooting verdict in Ohio." 

Gilbert and Smith's family really have more to be happy about in Oliver's order than to dislike. Besides the reduction, Oliver's 28-page motion knocked down or dismissed Jones' arguments against the trial and outcome.

"The good news is that the judge rejected every legal and factual argument regarding the civil rights case, the so-called 'errors' that they say happened at trial," Gilbert says. "Every issue they claimed required a voiding of the verdict didn't succeed. The bottom line is that evidence supported the violation of civil rights by Roger Jones." 

Among the issues the city and Jones tried to raise were procedural objections and complaints over jurors and experts. Oliver concluded the issues weren't legit legal grounds for a new trial. From the judge's own pen: "Ultimately, the court found that there remained genuine issues of material fact regarding how [Officer Jones] came to use deadly force and kill Kenneth Smith."  

Perhaps the best sign that Oliver was ultimately siding with the family, the judge went as far as to nod to Smith's musical talents, noting that Smith — who rapped as Kenn Ball — could easily have made at least $500,000 in his lifetime with his music. The judge thus ruled $500,000 was a reasonable figure as the possible earning capacity lost with his death. However the total $5.5 million, Oliver ruled, "is beyond the maximum damages," the judge wrote. Hence the reduction. 

"I've seen this a lot in commercial business litigation sometimes, mainly with punitive damages," Gilbert says of the award slash. "I don't know what to make of it, but the idea of going back to trial over this does not make any sense. [Smith's mother] does not want to do that." 

Also, Gilbert points out that the judge's ruling against Jones and the city's arguments will ultimately help Smith's cases down the line. "We have a better chance now when we go through the appeals court," he says. 

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