DALEY CENTER — A jury Thursday awarded $8.5 million to the family of a West Side teen shot to death by a Chicago police officer in 2007.
Annie Johnson, the mother of 18-year-old Aaron Harrison, sued the city and Officer John Fitzgerald for the teen’s death, which touched off angry protests. She originally asked for $11 million.
Lawyers for the teen’s family asserted testimony from police did not match up, and called a witness who said a gun was planted next to Harrison’s body. Fitzgerald and his attorneys maintain Harrison pointed a “big, shiny” gun at the officer, putting him in fear for his life.
Fitzgerald testified Thursday that "time stood still" for him when he saw the teen raise a gun and point it at him.
"It's a snapshot that you'll never forget," Fitzgerald told jurors at the Daley Center, where he was on trial for the second time this year. In May, jurors failed to reach a verdict.
"Time stood still. ... [The gun] was pointed at me for a long time," Fitzgerald testified. "That gun was pointed at me until he was shot."
The judgment is on top of the $54 million the city has already spent this year on police misconduct lawsuits, the Tribune reported in mid-July.
Fitzgerald fired one shot at Aaron Harrison in an alley on the West Side on Aug. 6, 2007. It went through Harrison's back and severed his spine, killing him. The shooting was later ruled a justifiable use of force by the Independent Police Review Authority.
Police said Harrison was shot in the back because he was pointing a gun across his body at Fitzgerald while running. His death sparked outrage on the West Side and led to angry, bottle- and brick-throwing protests.
Attorneys for Harrison's family argued the 18-year-old never had a gun, and an attorney for Harrison’s family cited a witness who said one minute there was no gun, and the next a large chrome pistol appeared on the grass.
“She sees the handcuffing … it seemed like it took a long time,” attorney Jim Montgomery said. “[Fitzgerald] gets up, and suddenly there’s a gun.”
When questioned about it Thursday, Fitzgerald denied planting the gun.
In sometimes emotional testimony, the veteran officer known as "Fitz" to his friends offered his version of what happened the night Harrison was killed.
Fitzgerald, under questioning by his lawyers Thursday, said he was working the night of Aug. 6, 2007, on a special unit that focused on guns, gangs and drugs around the city. His shift started at 5:30 p.m., he testified, and he and his fellow special-unit cops attended roll call and went to eat at the Green Door Tavern in River North.
By 7:30 p.m., they were on the West Side, patrolling in a two cars on Roosevelt Road. At the intersection of Roosevelt Road and Francisco Avenue, they saw a crowd hanging out in front of a corner store, Fitzgerald testified.
"That would be an area that we would commonly look for criminal activity at," he said.
Fitzgerald, in the passenger seat of the first car, said he radioed back to the second car that he thought one of the people in the group had a gun.
"I observed a person that I now know to be Aaron Harrison look in my direction, place his hand near his waistband and move a weighted object … what I believed to be a gun," he said.
Asked why he called his partners directly instead of using a citywide radio channel, Fitzgerald said his way was more reliable.
"Back then, the 10th and 11th districts were probably the busiest districts in the city," he said. "We wouldn't be able to get through [on the citywide radio]. … It was safer for us to work that way."
The two patrol cars continued slowly past Harrison. Then Fitzgerald's partner, who was driving, made a U-turn and drove the car up on to the curb in front of Harrison, blocking his avenue of escape, he testified.
"At that moment, I literally opened the door, I put my foot on the [ground] and Aaron Harrison sprinted," he said. "He was running fast."
He said Harrison ran through a vacant lot toward Mozart Street.
"I was in a dead-out sprint until I hit Mozart," he said. "It was just a regular foot chase."
Thinking his fellow officers had the suspect "boxed in," Fitzgerald said he slowed down and didn't draw his gun.
"I believed he had a gun. He didn't have it in his hands. I could see his hands. My threat level was not high enough. I believed we had him boxed in," he said.
But then Harrison darted into an overgrown lot to the east of a house at 1131 S. Mozart St., Fitzgerald said. "I lost sight of him. I knew he had a gun. I didn't know what was going on, so I removed my gun for safety reasons."
At that point, Harrison ran out of the lot at an angle, he testified. Fitzgerald got into a shooting position, he testified, and yelled: "Drop the gun!"
"I see his foot hit the cement. His arm comes up like this," Fitzgerald said, demonstrating his arm coming across his chest. "And this is all happening in real time.
"I observed a gun in Aaron Harrison's hand."
Fitzgerald fired one shot that hit Harrison.
"In my mind [I am thinking], 'Oh s---, I am going to get shot.' I mean, that's just how it is," he said. "It's a snapshot that you'll never forget."
Harrison fell to the ground, and Fitzgerald testified he saw a gun hit the ground and bounce.
"I placed my knee in to his back and I handcuffed him."
Earlier in the testimony, Fitzgerald was asked to identify a black 9 mm handgun with a chrome slide.
"This is the handgun that Aaron Harrison pointed at me," he testified.
The retrial began earlier this week, with Harrison's teary-eyed mother saying: "I miss his hugging, laughing. ...I miss his existence."
During opening arguments, Jack Kennedy, an attorney for Johnson, accused officers of a cover-up in “the unjustified killing of an unarmed teenager.”
Four witnesses, including two people who knew the teen and a 73-year-old landlord, testified Tuesday that Harrison didn’t have a gun and that there was no gun in the area around his dead body immediately after the shooting.
Fitzgerald left the courtroom and declined to comment.