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Ruling: Disputed stories push Gwinnett police shooting lawsuit to a jury trial

The widow of a Lawrenceville man who was naked and fatally shot by police in his own bedroom five years ago won the right this week to have the case presented to a federal civil jury.

The federal lawsuit claiming excessive force filed by the widow of James Felio, whose case was spotlighted by an AJC/Channel 2 investigation last year, should be heard by a jury, a panel of federal appeals judges ruled on Tuesday. The ruling said there are disputed facts in the case that need to be sorted out in a jury trial.

In July, the AJC and Channel 2 found that Felio was among the more than 60 Georgians shot and killed by police in their own home or that of a loved one, often after they'd called police for help. That finding came from the most sweeping review of police shootings in Georgia history in which reporters identified and analyzed 184 fatal police shootings since 2010.

Felio was unarmed and asleep in the couple's bedroom in December 2010 when his wife called 911 after James physically abused her earlier in the evening. Two Lawrenceville officers arrived, and within 10 minutes Felio was dead after a struggle in which the officers said he tried to grab one of their guns. One of the officers shot Felio.

Felio's widow, Tenisha Felio, who is raising their three young boys on her own, told  investigators a different story. She said she witnessed the fight and saw no struggle for the officer's gun. Her cousin was also in the townhouse and saw part of the fight and told a different story than the police.

In November 2014, a federal judge dismissed the family's lawsuit on the grounds that the officers were within their legal rights to use force because Felio posed a threat to their safety.

But the judicial panel ruling this week said the differing stories and disputed facts between the officers version and the Felio family's account need to be considered by a jury.

"We all are relieved to know that a jury will get a chance to hear the case," said James Dearing, Tenisha Felio's attorney. "Someone has to answer the question of what happened in that bedroom. I'm relieved someone will take a look at this."

The court partially overturned the previous decision, saying the Lawrenceville officer who fired the shot that killed Felio, Officer Christopher Hyatt, should face the civil jury. The court upheld the earlier dismissal of the lawsuit against the City of Lawrenceville and the other officer, Sgt. Karl Hydrick.

The police department and officers have previously declined to comment on the shooting, citing the ongoing litigation.

The federal case is the last chance for Felio's family to claim the justice they say they've been denied. Like most fatal shootings in Georgia, Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter's office found the shooting justified and never took the case to a grand jury.

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About the Author

Brad Schrade is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter on the AJC’s investigative team.