Judge postpones civil rights case, cites influence of publicity on jurors

A federal judge declared a mistrial Thursday, Aug. 11, 2014, in the lawsuit filed against Suffolk County police by the family of Kevin Callahan, 26, of Selden, who was fatally shot in his home, after police responded to a call of a man with a gun in September 2011. The lawsuit alleged officers used excessive force after illegally entering Callahan's home. (Credit: Newsday / Jessica Rotkiewicz)

A federal judge Monday postponed a civil-rights lawsuit brought by the family of a Selden man shot to death in 2011 by a Suffolk police officer, because many of the potential jurors had read a Newsday article about the case.

U.S. District Judge Leonard Wexler in federal court in Central Islip said he was declaring a mistrial because of the need for "a distance from all the publicity." In halting jury selection as it was about to be completed, Wexler said the article contained information that the jury would not be permitted to hear.

Wexler specifically referred to the article mentioning that the family of the deceased man, Kevin Callahan, 26, is suing Suffolk police officers over the death, as well as Suffolk County for allegedly having a history of inadequate police training.

Shortly before the start of jury selection Monday morning, Wexler ruled that the case would be split in two, and that selected jurors would only hear the case filed against the Suffolk police by Callahan's mother, Patricia, and his brother, Christopher. The case against the county would be heard at a later, unspecified date, the judge said.

The Newsday story that the judge cited contained a comment from the family's defense attorney strongly criticizing the county's training of police as being inadequate and contending the county would only change their policies if they were made to pay out substantial damages. A county spokesman declined to comment and Suffolk police officials did not return calls.

Wexler said that he had not previously read the article, but it had been pointed out to him.

The article had been running on the Newsday website since Saturday and was in Monday's newspaper. Sources said a copy of the article was also in the room that potential jurors had gathered in before they entered the courtroom.

Wexler said that the article had quotes on the case from both the plaintiffs and the defense. The article, however, only quoted the Callahans' attorney, Amy Marion of Garden City. Marion said she believed Wexler would not have adjourned the case if the article didn't contain her comments criticizing the county.

After the judge left the courtroom, the judge's clerk said Wexler was not available for comment. The attorney for the police officers, Assistant Suffolk County Attorney Brian Mitchell, declined to comment.

In addition to suing the county, Callahan's family had initially sued eight police officers involved in the circumstances around his death. On the day of the trial, four officers remained as defendants.

The Callahans had previously dropped two of the defendants, and two more were dropped in court filings on Sunday.The day of Kevin Callahan's death, Suffolk officers were responding to a 911 call from his brother, Christopher, that there might have been a man with a gun in Kevin's home.

Thomas Wilson, the officer who fired the shots that killed Callahan, said in a police report that as he searched the home, he saw a man in a darkened room, and a door closed on him trapping him between the doorjamb and the door. Thinking he was in danger of his life, Wilson "fired to stop the male from 'killing me.' " Christopher Callahan had acknowledged he had called 911 after his mother said to him that his brother had told her on the phone that someone in the house "had a gun."

Christopher Callahan has said "he did not think there was a real emergency" because his brother had lied about such situations in the past, and he only "asked that a police car drive by the house just to check that everything was OK."

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