By Stacy St. Clair and Jeff Coen, Chicago Tribune – Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO – Michael LaPorta’s wheelchair is falling apart.
The specially equipped van he uses to get around his South Side neighborhood needs serious repair. The lift he uses to get in and out his front door occasionally goes on the fritz, too.
A year ago, a federal jury found that LaPorta’s childhood friend – an off-duty Chicago cop – shot him in the head after a night of heavy drinking. The West Morgan Park man’s injuries were so catastrophic, he can no longer walk, read or live independently.
Jurors awarded LaPorta a record $44.7 million after a civil trial, deciding that the Chicago Police Department’s unwritten policies emboldened the officer and instilled the idea that he could act with impunity.
But 12 months after that landmark decision, LaPorta has not received anything from the city. With the case mired in a typically lengthy appeals process, his parents still struggle to provide their adult son with round-the-clock care. His mother had an emergency heart procedure late last year, and his 62-year-old father, a retired city laborer who has his own pulmonary issues, continues running his business of laying asphalt to help pay for his son’s needs.
The city has been more generous toward the man found to have shot LaPorta. The Chicago Tribune has learned the officer, Patrick Kelly, continues to receive his full paycheck from the Police Department, even though he had his badge stripped and has been under investigation for more than a year.
“A year ago, I felt hope like I hadn’t felt since before Mikey was shot,” LaPorta’s 59-year-old mother, Patricia, said. “Now I feel like the city is just waiting for us to die, so there is no one there to keep fighting for Mikey.”
Michael LaPorta and Kelly were the only people inside the officer’s Mount Greenwood home on Jan. 12, 2010, when LaPorta was shot toward the back of his head with Kelly’s service weapon. Investigators classified the shooting as an attempted suicide based largely on the account provided by Kelly, who has been found mentally unfit for duty twice, arrested two times, accused of beating a girlfriend and treated for alcohol addiction.
LaPorta, who was also Kelly’s college roommate, couldn’t speak for months after the shooting, but his family disputed the suicide classification from the beginning. LaPorta’s fingerprints weren’t found on the gun, and witnesses – including several Chicago police officers LaPorta and Kelly had been drinking with that night – said he appeared to be in good spirits in the hours before the shooting.
Even with that cloud of uncertainty hanging over the investigation, police took the word of Kelly, who told them LaPorta found the gun in the officer’s bedroom, put it near his head and pulled the trigger. A bullet fired from the pistol splintered and ricocheted inside LaPorta’s head, leaving him with severe brain damage and a host of other medical problems.
Kelly, who has repeatedly denied shooting LaPorta, settled with the family as an individual in 2012 for $300,000 – the maximum payout under Kelly’s personal insurance policy.
The LaPorta family also sued the city, alleging the department should have removed Kelly from the force long before the shooting.
When the case went to trial nearly seven years later, Kelly exercised his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during the trial and would not answer questions about the incident – including one specifically asking if he shot his friend and another asking if he lied to police about it being a suicide attempt.
The move did not sit well with jurors, who needed only 20 minutes to determine Kelly shot LaPorta. They spent the rest of their two-day deliberations deciding the monetary award, before settling on $44.7 million.
In addition to being the biggest award for a police misconduct case in state history, the verdict also marked the first time a jury had found the city enabled troubled officers by failing to discipline them and by failing to maintain an early warning system to identify potential problems.
U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber upheld the jurors’ decision in August, ruling the $44.7 million award, “while high, was not excessive.” He also ordered the city to pay an additional $2.7 million for LaPorta’s costs and legal fees.
The city’s appeal is ongoing.
“The city’s position is that taxpayers cannot be held responsible for Kelly’s off-duty actions in his private capacity,” Chicago Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in an emailed statement. “The city will also argue that the damages are excessive, among other issues.”
Though it’s rare for police officers to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights, Kelly has refused to make statements under oath since February 2016, when the Chicago Police Department reopened an investigation into the shooting. The case remains open.
He was stripped of his police powers after he refused to answer questions on the witness stand. Officials said he still remains employed by the department and receives his $87,000-a-year salary, though he may no longer make arrests or carry a gun.
Kelly “reports to work every day but is in a nonoperational assignment that does not require being a sworn police officer,” pending final discipline, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. The officer is detailed to a telephone reporting unit, he said.
A lawyer for Kelly declined to comment Tuesday. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has been outspoken recently on police reform, also declined to comment on the situation through a spokesman, who said the mayor would not address a pending case.
The city agency that investigates officer-involved shootings and other alleged police misconduct cleared Kelly of any wrongdoing in 2010 without interviewing LaPorta. The agency, now known as the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, relaunched the investigation last year after the Tribune made inquiries about the case.
Records show the agency finally spoke with LaPorta last January, a 90-minute interview in which he told investigators he argued with Kelly over treatment of his friend’s dog before the gun went off. LaPorta has said he does not remember the actual shooting, and a transcript of the interview shows his limitations handling multipart questions as he struggled to tell investigators when he first saw the gun, and what his memories are of the moments before he was gravely wounded.
“He was hitting the dog,” said LaPorta, who did flatly deny being suicidal that evening. “And the dog didn’t do anything wrong. And that – that’s it. I was praising the dog.”
Records obtained by the Tribune show the Civilian Office of Police Accountability made a recommendation on discipline for Kelly in late September, giving the Police Department 60 days to respond. A COPA spokesman declined to disclose the agency’s findings, saying the agency is prohibited from releasing the information until after the Police Department makes a decision on it.
The department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs also has been investigating whether Kelly made false statements about the shooting since the trial, and that case remains open, officials said.
“What about this case requires a year to investigate?” LaPorta’s attorney Antonio Romanucci said. “My confidence in COPA or the Chicago Police Department isn’t very high at this point.”
All the while, Michael LaPorta longs for the independence the jury’s award could provide him. Once an avid sportsman, he wants to move to Alabama where he dreams of joining friends and family on duck hunts even though he would only be a spectator.
He tells his parents, who have been his primary caretakers since the shooting, that they can live in a house about 20 minutes away.
“He’s a 38-year-old man, and he wants to be independent from his parents,” Patricia LaPorta said. “I don’t blame him for that. … It’s not like he wants something remarkable. I know remarkable is beyond our reach right now.”
This is not the life Patricia LaPorta envisioned for her adventurous oldest child or for herself. She expected Mikey to give her grandchildren by this time and to take over her husband’s small asphalt laying and snowplowing business.
Instead, his parents have converted their dining room into a wheelchair accessible bedroom and used their savings to extensively remodel the family’s home so their son can move around in it. Patricia LaPorta rarely gets a full night’s rest because she wakes frequently to help Michael, who has difficulty sleeping because of his chronic pain.
After Michael LaPorta was hospitalized with an infection late last year, she started have cardiac problems while there with him and had emergency stents put in. It was among the most terrifying moments she has experienced since the shooting.
“I kept telling myself not to die and to hold on, hold on,” she said. “I told myself if you don’t hold on, there is no one to take care of Mikey. Just, please, please hold on.”
Patricia LaPorta recovered, but she still worries about what the future holds for her son. Much of the equipment she and her husband, Michael Sr., purchased after the shooting – a medical bed, motorized wheelchair, specially equipped van and wheelchair lift – are now nearly nine years old and starting to break down.
And those pieces of equipment are critical to the small freedoms Michael LaPorta enjoys. In between his various therapies, Michael LaPorta and his mother go someplace every day just to get out of the house and see people. Some days it’s a trip to Walmart to buy cologne or Kohl’s for a pair of socks, other times it’s a quick run to Walgreens to pick up a magazine.
On Mother’s Day, Michael LaPorta used his left hand – the only one he can use – to open his front door, lower himself on the lift and roll into the street. He then drove himself in his wheelchair to the Jewel down the block and purchased hanging flower baskets for his mother and two other women who lived on his block.
Patricia LaPorta knew he wanted to buy the gifts by himself, so she reluctantly let him go alone. Still, she tracked him on her cellphone’s “Find Friends” app the entire time.
Though she wept at her son’s thoughtfulness, Patricia LaPorta couldn’t help but feel some bitterness. Patrick Kelly does not have to go to such lengths just to buy a plant.
“This other man goes about his life,” she said. “He’s still working, he’s still receiving a paycheck. He can stand up and walk. He can go where he wants and do whatever he wants. My son can’t do anything.”
It seems the city/police department are still acting with impunity.
"If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy." David Frum, Republican, January 18, 2018
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