MILWAUKEE — A mother who watched in horror as her neighbor shot and killed her teenage son in 2012 won a major victory Wednesday when a Milwaukee County judge bypassed a trial and awarded her thousands of dollars in civil damages.
The move, called summary judgment, is a procedural tactic judges may allow when there's no dispute over the facts. Judge Kevin Martens agreed to grant summary judgment on a wrongful-death charge, which could carry penalties of more than $500,000, but not on a lesser charge of inflicting severe emotional distress.
John Henry Spooner, 77, never denied gunning down 13-year-old Darius Simmons. Spooner accosted Darius on the sidewalk and accused him of stealing his guns, a charge the boy denied. Spooner then shot him once in the chest, and when the dying boy tried to flee, Spooner fired a second shot that missed.
Police searched Darius' home after the shooting and didn't find the weapons.
The entire episode played out as Darius' mother watched from her porch a few yards away. The shooting was also captured on Spooner's own surveillance video, providing evidence so incriminating that jury deliberations lasted only about an hour before he was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide.
Spooner, a widower who was has lung cancer and other physical ailments, was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
He sold his house to pay his criminal defense attorney, and he has almost no other assets. But Darius' mother, Patricia Larry, filed a civil lawsuit in case he ever profits from his story.
She alleged that Spooner caused the wrongful death of her son and also inflicted severe emotional distress. She sought $51,181 in compensation for hospital bills, $7,370 for funeral costs and $100,000 for emotional pain. She and Darius Simmons Sr., her son's father who lives out of state, also sought $500,000 for loss of their son's companionship.
Spooner's civil attorney, Basil Loeb, argued that summary judgment shouldn't be granted as long as his client's appeal on the criminal conviction was still pending. He also argued that even if Spooner meant to kill Darius, he didn't intend to cause emotional distress to the boy's mother.
Martens granted summary judgment on the wrongful-death charge, awarding the full hospital and funeral costs. He set a hearing date for Aug. 7 to determine the total amount the parents should receive for loss of companionship, and how the amount should be divided between them.
He declined to grant summary judgment on the charge of inflicting severe emotional distress, saying a jury should decide how severe Larry's distress was.
It wasn't immediately clear whether Spooner would appeal the judgments against him. Loeb left the courtroom without speaking to a reporter and didn't immediately return a phone message.
Larry's attorney, Jonathan Safran, said he might forgo a trial on the remaining charge. For Larry to demonstrate her degree of emotional distress, she'd have to testify about the pain of watching her son get shot and dying in her arms as she cradled him, he noted.
"We'll have to discuss with the family whether we want to do that," he said.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at email@example.com.