Civil trial began Monday in a Lafayette police officer’s 2011 fatal shooting of Quamaine Mason, whose family’s wrongful-death lawsuit in the killing is getting a second chance in federal district court.
Mason’s parents, Brenda and Billy, filed the lawsuit in 2012 after a grand jury declined to indict the officer, Martin Faul. A year later, a federal district court judge dismissed the lawsuit, finding the defendants — Faul, former Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft and Lafayette Consolidated Government — immune from civil liability.
But in 2015, a panel of judges from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that dismissal and ordered a jury trial.
The appeals court found a jury could conclude that a "reasonable officer in Faul’s position" — after firing five shots into Mason’s upper body, which left him face down onto the ground — did not have probable cause to fire another two shots into the 21-year-old’s back.
They also found the judge did not give adequate weight to evidence favorable to the Masons, including the testimony of Racquel Babino, then Mason’s girlfriend and the only non-police witness to the shooting.
Witness: Mason had his hands up
As the first witness in the trial, Babino took the stand late Monday. She recalled to the Masons’ attorney, Jeff Speer, how Mason stormed her Campus Crossings apartment the night of Dec. 9, 2011, after he found her there with two men, including her child’s father. Angry, Mason waved the gun around and demanded the two men leave.
Evidence already admitted in the case throughout its nearly six years weaving through the courts shows one of those men called police. Faul responded to the scene as a reported armed robbery.
Judge Carol Whitehurst is presiding over the case. After Monday’s jury dismissal, she reiterated to the plaintiff and defense attorneys that what happened in the apartment that night is only "relevant" to Faul’s encounter with Mason in the sense of whether it had de-escalated by the time police arrived.
Whitehurst also told attorneys representing Faul and the city that they can’t bring the gun in to "cock" it during witness testimony. According to the judge’s statements, the attorneys sought to have the two men testify whether they heard the sound when Mason entered the apartment that night.
"That is highly prejudicial," Whitehurst said.
Witness audio played in court
Babino said when the men left the apartment, she and Mason began talking through their argument but soon realized their dog had gone missing. They opened the door to find multiple police officers with their guns drawn. She said she jumped in front of Mason and screamed at the officers as they screamed at the two of them, but she had no recollection of what the officers said and only wanted to know why they were there.
Eventually, Faul unleashed his canine on Mason and soon fired five shots into Mason’s upper body, causing him to fall face-down on the ground while the dog remained latched onto his upper thigh, Babino said.
She testified that Mason had kept his hands up until the dog attacked him, and only then did she see his hands move — but never for his gun.
Babino said when she called out Mason’s name once he fell to the ground, he picked up his head "and it just dropped," but no other part of his body moved.
Babino said a female officer on the scene told her police saw Mason reach for his gun.
Assistant city attorney Joy Rabalais, who’s representing Faul, played an audio recording of Babino’s statement to State Police investigators on the night of the shooting. She told the two interviewing officers that "the only reason he reached to get his gun was to put it down." Later during that interview, she said that "if" he reached for it, that would have been why.
Rabalais focused in on that statement while questioning Babino, who stressed that she corrected herself during the interview and accused the lawyer of twisting her words.
In the recording, Babino also told State Police investigators that she believed the officers felt cause to shoot because they saw "a black man with a gun."
"And that could be anywhere," she told them. "When a cop sees a black man with a gun, he shoots."
Rabalais told the jury during opening statements that in Faul’s more than 20-year career, the only time he pulled the trigger was in Mason’s death.
Faul appeared in court on Monday in full police uniform. Craft, who now leads the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, also was present.
An eight-person jury is hearing the trial, which is expected to last at least a week. Witness testimony continues on Tuesday.