Air Force ordered to pay $230 million for failure to report airman’s violent criminal history

News

Guillermo Contreras

San Antonio Express-News

A federal judge has ordered the U.S. government to pay families of victims and survivors of the Sutherland Springs mass shooting more than $230 million in damages for the Air Force’s failure to report the gunman’s violent criminal history to the national firearms database, which could have prevented him from buying his assault-style rifle.

In a 185-page order, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez included individual awards of $5 million to $6 million for pain and mental anguish for several survivors or estates of those killed.

He ordered the government to pay millions more for damages such as loss of companionship or consortium, pecuniary loss, disfigurement and physical impairment and medical costs associated with the massacre at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.

The verdict is the largest award or settlement in recent memory over a mass shooting in the United States. Plaintiffs’ lawyers said if the government doesn’t appeal, the verdict would compensate more than 80 family members of victims and survivors who filed suit.

“The losses and pain these families have experienced is immeasurable. Our civil justice system only allows us to rectify these kinds of losses through money damages,” the attorneys said in a joint statement issued by lead counsel Jamal Alsaffar.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio, whose lawyers helped defend the Air Force at trial, referred questions to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. The department said it is “reviewing the decision,” and declined further comment.

Attempts to reach some of the victims for comment Monday were unsuccessful.

On Nov. 5, 2017, disgraced former airman Devin Kelley opened fire at the church with an AR-556 rifle, killing 26 people and wounding more than 20 others. His wife attended the church, but Kelley had tied her up at their New Braunfels home before going on the rampage in Sutherland Springs, about 35 miles to the south.

Kelley was booted from the Air Force in 2014 because of his propensity for violence. Before his discharge, he was convicted of domestic violence for seriously injuring his infant stepson and was sent to jail for a year. He had been barred from Holloman AFB in New Mexico because of a pattern that included threats to superiors and bringing firearms onto the base.

After a trial last spring, Rodriguez ruled in July that the Air Force was 60 percent responsible for the shooting; and Kelley 40 percent responsible.

Testimony showed that for more than 30 years, the Air Force failed to report thousands of violent felons, including Kelley, into the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The NCIC is designed to prevent convicted criminals from purchasing or possessing firearms. Without that flag, Kelley was able to buy guns from licensed dealers.

Rodriguez held a separate trial in October and November to determine damages, during which survivors told harrowing stories of the shooting. Many believed the gunshots were firecrackers initially. But when they realized what they heard were gunshots, they hit the floor and crawled under pews to try to escape the rain of bullets. Many cried as they saw their fellow worshipers killed, while some sang “Jesus Loves Me” or prayed. Mothers used their bodies to try to shield their children, some dragged the wounded to safety or triaged those who were shot.

Kelley shot more than 450 rounds at the victims and through the church walls.

The trial even made seasoned police investigators break down on the witness stand. It was the worst mass shooting in Texas and drew dozens of local, state and federal law officers to the small town east of San Antonio.

Juan “Gunny” Macias, 53, who served tours in the Marine Corps, testified during the damages phase that he began to get up to rush Kelley when he heard him drop one of the magazines to reload the rifle, but couldn’t get up because he had been shot in the leg. Kelley saw Macias move and fired, hitting him several more times before he fled and was chased out of town by Good Samaritans. Kelley took his own life at the end of the chase.

“I didn’t save anybody’s life. That’s a big thing for me,” Macias testified. “At one time, someone got on the news and said about Sutherland Springs, that we did everything wrong, that we should have ran. And I felt so guilty because I was the first one to yell ‘get down.’ Although, I know—I know if anybody would have gotten up and tried running, the church so small, I think more people would have died. But the guilt is still there.”

At the end of the damages phase of trial, lawyers for the survivors and for bereaved relatives of the deceased had asked the judge for $418 million total. The Justice Department’s lawyers had proposed $31.8 million.

In their statement, lawyers for the families and survivors noted that, during the damages trial, the federal government simultaneously settled two other mass shooting cases accusing the feds of negligence while refusing to settle the Sutherland Springs case.

At the end of October, the Justice Department announced it had settled lawsuits stemming from a 2015 church shooting in South Carolina. In that case, the Justice Department agreed to pay $88 million to the families of nine people who were killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., by gunman Dylann Roof.

And in November, families of more than a dozen victims of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., reached a $127.5 million settlement with the Justice Department to resolve their lawsuit over the FBI’s failure to act on tips about the gunman. Seventeen people were killed in that shooting.

“Despite the overwhelming facts presented that proved the government’s severe negligence in the Sutherland Springs Church shooting, the government chose not to make a settlement offer to the 26 deceased Texas victims and instead forced their families to endure two long and emotional trials,” the Sutherland Springs lawyers’ statement said.

“These families are the heroes here,” attorney Alsaffar said. “While no amount can bring back the many lives lost or destroyed at the hands of the government’s negligence, their bravery in obtaining this verdict will make this country safer by helping ensure that this type of governmental failure does not happen in our country again.”

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