Tolan’s mother Marian said about the resolution, “Though I still have my son, I’ve had to watch his dreams and part of his spirit die. We’ve given up so much as a family for a chance at justice, a chance at peace, a chance at being whole again. This has been a horrific experience.” While the attorney for the Tolan family Daryl Washington told reporters outside the courthouse, “As Mrs. Tolan has said and as Robbie has said on many occasions this is not about black versus white this is about right versus wrong,”
A case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court last year was resolved in a settlement in Houston Federal District Court on Tuesday. 23 year-old Robert Tolan was shot by Bellaire, Texas police Sergeant Jeffrey Cotton in front of his parents’ home on December 31st, 2008 in the affluent Houston suburb. Cotton, who is white, mistakenly believed that Tolan and his cousin, Anthony Cooper, who are black, were armed and in possession of a stolen vehicle. The younger Tolan is the son of 13-year retired Major League Baseball player Bobby Tolan. Minutes before jury selection was set to begin in the civil rights trial against Cotton, the attorneys for Bellaire and Tolan and family members agreed to a $110,000 settlement. The younger Tolan was also an aspiring professional baseball player, desiring to follow in his father’s footsteps; however the bullet pierced Tolan’s lung and remains lodged in his liver. The wound has prevented him from playing professionally.
Tolan and his cousin were pulled over by officer John Edwards after a string of car thefts in the city. As Cotton arrived as backups Edwards erred by one digit while typing in the license plate of Tolan’s Nissan, which coincidentally was a plate number of a vehicle that was reported stolen. A confrontation ensued after Tolan’s parents came out to see what had occurred; ultimately leading to Tolan’s shooting. Tolan’s family filed the suit in 2009, with U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon ruling that Cotton had qualified immunity from the civil rights claim. Cotton was acquitted of criminal charges in 2010. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed the 2012 decision; however the Supreme Court revived the case in 2014. The Court ruled that the 5th Circuit did not sufficiently weigh Tolan’s argument. The case was sent back down to the 5th Circuit, which in turn sent the case back to Harmon. With the trial set to begin, Harmon had already thrown out a similar suit against the city. Attorney for the city of Bellaire Bill Helfand told reporters that the settlement was due to the excessive costs of litigation and “are in no way an indication of any fault on any party.”
The settlement comes as a bit of a surprise given the lengthy process to keep the case alive. Harmon had already shown a weak reception to the case considering her prior ruling, and during Friday’s pretrial hearing she indicted her desire to dismiss the case against Cotton. Harmon denied the motion for summary judgment, writing “I am very tempted to grant it, but I’m not going to right now. I think the Supreme Court sent it back to the circuit so that they could reanalyze my case. The Fifth Circuit didn’t want to do that, so they punted it to me. And I don’t think . . . they would ever be satisfied if we didn’t take this case to trial.” Harmon added, “I thought I was right the first time.” Harmon also denied the Tolans’ motion to remove herself from the case on Monday in light of her sentiment. Harmon however, responded to the motion saying that she “has never expressed a personal bias or prejudice against Robert R. Tolan or in favor of Jeffrey Cotton.” Tolan’s family agreed to the settlement after realizing the case would continue under Harmon’s jurisdiction, despite her less than enthusiastic comments.
Tolan’s mother Marian said about the resolution, “Though I still have my son, I’ve had to watch his dreams and part of his spirit die. We’ve given up so much as a family for a chance at justice, a chance at peace, a chance at being whole again. This has been a horrific experience.” While the attorney for the Tolan family Daryl Washington told reporters outside the courthouse, “As Mrs. Tolan has said and as Robbie has said on many occasions this is not about black versus white this is about right versus wrong,” many have cited the case as an example of the hazards involved with racial profiling. Washington instead cited the case as an example of laws geared toward protecting police against brutality claims, telling reporters, “In 2008 the issues of excessive force had just started, We’re now in 2015 and these issues are still going on and until we realize that government statutes are designed to protect these police officers we’re going to continue to have this problem.”
Courthouse News Service – Cameron Langford
Houston Chronicle – Cindy George