U.S. appeals court rules against cop who killed Peyton Ham

U.S. appeals court rules against cop who killed Peyton Ham

Peyton Ham will be given another day in court.

This morning, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, reversed a lower court’s summary judgment in favor of Joseph Azzari, a Maryland State Police officer who shot and killed 16-year-old Ham in Leonardtown, Maryland, in April 2021. The decision, which came on a 2-1 vote by the appeals court panel, sends a message to the court that the court’s decision was “not a logical conclusion.” Boyle v. AzzariHam’s mother’s wrongful death lawsuit against the officer has been dismissed in federal court in Maryland. And Ham’s family, who were granted access to key documents from the initial murder investigation before the case was dismissed, including a full autopsy report, will finally be granted access to the case file.

Ham had called 911 for himself during what his mother, Kristee Boyle, described as a mental health crisis. Azzari said he began shooting almost immediately after arriving at the scene when Ham pointed what turned out to be a toy gun at him. A small pocket knife belonging to Ham with a 2.5-inch blade was also found at the scene. No video of the shooting exists, as Azzari was not wearing a body camera and did not activate his SUV’s dash cam during the encounter. Audio from a nearby security camera shows that after an initial series of 11 shots, some of which struck Ham in the arm and shoulder, Azzari waited about a minute before firing four more shots into Ham’s neck and torso, killing him. A photo taken by a neighbor 47 seconds before he was killed shows Ham kneeling in a gravel driveway, with a lot of blood running down his right side, and Azzari standing above and behind him an arm’s length away.

Several months after Ham’s death, three witnesses told Defector that Azzari’s fatal shots were fired while the teenager was kneeling and posed no threat to the soldier.

“Peyton was murdered in my driveway,” said neighbor Michelle Mills.

The only official investigation into the killing was conducted by Azzari’s colleagues in the Maryland State Police. Three days before Ham’s killing, the state legislature in Annapolis passed a set of legal reforms aimed at preventing such obvious conflicts of interest in police-involved deaths; such cases are now handled by a unit of the state attorney general’s office known as the Independent Investigations Division. But the law didn’t go into effect until months after Azzari discharged his 9 mm service weapon at the teenager.

Azzari was identified as “the victim” throughout the report written by state police investigators. Richard Fritz, the district attorney for St. Mary’s County, Maryland, cited only the information provided by state police and Azzari’s claim that he “feared for his life” when he killed Ham, while announcing in November 2021 that no criminal charges would be filed against the officer and that the case was closed.

In April 2022, Boyle filed a civil lawsuit in federal court, alleging that Azzari violated his son’s constitutional rights by killing him. His complaint highlighted significant discrepancies between Azzari’s varied accounts of what happened the day his son died and eyewitness accounts and police reports. Azzari had at one point claimed that he killed Ham as the teenager “came close to attack him.” No evidence or witnesses have yet emerged to support this account.

But in January 2023, Judge George Hazel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland ruled in Azzari’s favor. In granting summary judgment, Judge Hazel wrote that it was “immaterial” that Ham posed a real threat to the officer. Azzari’s “belief that (Ham) was dangerous” was sufficient under federal law to justify his use of deadly force, according to Hazel.

The family appealed Hazel’s decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. At a May 10 hearing in Richmond, Boyle’s attorney, Christopher Longmore, argued that his side was unfairly denied public records such as the autopsy report, the officer’s training records and personnel file, and that they were also prevented from having Azzari testify under oath, which could have allowed them to argue their wrongful death case.

Phillip Pickus, Maryland’s assistant attorney general, who represented Azzari, argued at the hearing that the so-called “qualified immunity” clause allows his client and all law enforcement officers to use deadly force against anyone they fear. Pickus went so far as to tell the appeals court that the Supreme Court’s decisions set a precedent that Azzari could legally shoot a “5-year-old,” as long as the preschooler frightened him.

The majority of the appeals panel, however, sided with Longmore. Citing the 1986 case, Celotex Corp. v. CatrettJudge Roger Gregory wrote in the opinion released today that “summary judgment should be granted only after adequate time for discovery.”

Also from Judge Gregory:

In this case, the district court knew that Boyle had not had an opportunity to obtain the evidence necessary to oppose Azzari’s motion that he had filed before the parties engaged in any discovery. She explicitly informed the court of the importance of discovery to her case and noted that she had been denied access to Ham’s autopsy report, a key piece of evidence, at least three times before the court ruled on the motion. Seeking an opportunity to have Azzari testify about what happened, she also pointed to Azzari’s conflicting statements about Ham’s movements immediately before he was fatally shot. (“I had discharged my firearm as the subject was grabbing a knife, trying to get up.”)… (“He stood up with the knife in his hand and took a step toward me.”) The district court was therefore well aware of the inadequacy of the summary judgment record and should have provided time for discovery before considering Azzari’s motion… These accounts of the moments immediately preceding the use of force, the central issue in every excessive force case, are in direct conflict.

The appeals panel also found erroneous Judge Hazel’s conclusion that “Azzari’s belief” that Ham was dangerous “was sufficient to justify his use of deadly force.”

“In sum, the district court erred in denying Boyle’s motion for discovery because it was informed that Boyle had not had an opportunity to obtain the evidence necessary to oppose Azzari’s motion for summary judgment,” the opinion reads. “It also erred in concluding that the autopsy report could not create a triable issue of fact. Rather, the discovery of evidence regarding Ham’s position, condition, and distance from Azzari at the time Azzari fired the fatal shots could create a material dispute of fact regarding whether Azzari reasonably used force at that time.”

In his dissenting opinion, Judge David A. Faber made clear that he wholeheartedly accepted Pickus’s argument regarding qualified immunity. Judge Faber referred to the gargantuan hurdle plaintiffs must overcome in civil suits against police officers, specifically endorsing the lower court’s assertion that, under the law, it did not matter that Ham “remained on his knees” when Azzari killed him.

“Reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment ‘is assessed from the perspective of the officer at the scene, not through the more leisurely lens of hindsight,'” Faber wrote, citing the 2007 case, Abney v. Coe“No discovery can compensate for the absence of a clearly established law that would have allowed Azzari to know that his actions violated the Fourth Amendment.”

Boyle told Defector she was pleased with the appeals court’s verdict, and while no hearing date has yet been set for the case, the family and Longmore “plan to move forward with discovery and start the process over from the beginning.”

“This outcome represents a critical legal milestone that will not only achieve justice for our beloved Peyton,” she said, “but will also pave the way for establishing an official precedent to help others who have been unfairly impacted by similar circumstances.”