Crime & Justice

Verdict near in lawsuit over deputy-involved shooting of a teen with a toy gun

Credit: LASD

A jury could decide this week whether a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy acted reasonably three years ago when he shot a teenager holding a toy gun.

The deputy shot 15-year old William Fetters in May 2009 while responding to a radio call in Palmdale about a man on a bike brandishing a gun.

The weapon turned out to be a plastic toy gun the teen was using to play “cops and robbers” with other kids in the street. The orange tip on the toy gun was broken off.

Deputy Scott Sorrow, who was seated in the passenger seat of the patrol car, says he told Fetters to stop and drop the gun. He says the teen pedaled away, but suddenly stopped.

According to Sorrow, the boy turned as he straddled the bike and pointed the gun at the patrol car. That’s when Sorrow fired a single shot that hit Fetters somewhere between the back and left side of his body. The teen survived the gunshot.

Fetters’ guardian sued L.A. County and the Sheriff’s Department for unlawful excessive force, claiming the teen followed the deputy’s orders to drop the gun but was shot anyway.

County attorneys argued in court that the deputies had no way of knowing the gun was fake, and that Deputy Sorrow was forced to make a split-second decision when Fetters turned and pointed the gun at the patrol car.

Nearly four years after the shooting, the lawsuit is in its final stages. Closing arguments wrapped up last week in a downtown L.A, courtroom. The jury is deliberating this week.

During closing arguments last Friday, plaintiffs attorney Bradley Gage noted the caller told the 9-1-1 emergency dispatcher that he saw a boy riding a bicycle with an air soft or BB gun. He said the Sheriff's department had that information.

“We think the evidence is pretty compelling that they knew,” said Gage.

Gage also said a child who witnessed the shooting testified that he didn’t see the gun in Fetters' hands when he was shot. The witness said Fetters’ hands were in the air, as if he was surrendering. Lawyers for L.A. County countered those arguments by noting the testimony of a witness who said she was about a football field away when the shooting happened.

Defense attorney Catherine Mathers said investigators did not find a bullet hole in the T-shirt William Fetters wore that day, meaning the bullet traveled through the sleeve of his baggy shirt. Mathers argued that is consistent with the deputies' story that the teen pointed the gun at the patrol car.

“They were going after somebody they believed had a gun,” said Mathers. She said the case was about “whether or not appropriate action was taken when a gun was in their face.”

The jury began deliberations Monday, and came back Tuesday with requests to review video depositions of the teenager and an audio recording of the initial interview that Deputy Sorrow gave to investigators after the shooting.

In his lawsuit, Fetters—now 19—asks for unspecified compensation for damages suffered.