New witnesses claim Scozzari was unarmed when shot by officers

February 3, 2012

Once again the lawsuit against Clare and Clare’s Police Chief Dwayne Miedzianowski and Officer Jeremy McGraw for the shooting of William Scozzari is in the news.

According to two recent articles in the Clare Sentinel, two new witnesses, who “happened upon a news story on the [Sentinel] website,” have presented sworn affidavits to the Scozzari family attorney disputing Miedzianowski and McGraw’s claims that Scozzari was shot in self-defense.

Scozzari, 51, died September 18, 2007 at the Lone Pine Motel in Clare where he had lived for about ten years in a cabin. He was shot during an altercation with the Chief and McGraw while they attempted to arrest him.

Miedzianowski reported responding to a report of shots fired near Shamrock Park that night and observed Scozzari walking in the area. The Police Chief said Scozzari ignored his orders to stop and responded with profanity. After following the man to the Lone Pine, Officer McGraw arrived as backup. When they confronted Scozzari in his cabin, the officers said he threatened them with a hatchet and a knife, prompting the shooting.

Scozzari was hit by five bullets from McGraw’s gun. The court documents described Scozzari as 5 foot 3 inches, 133 pounds, partially blind, hard of hearing and reportedly schizophrenic.

State Police investigating the shooting and former Clare County Prosecutor Norm Gage ruled that the shooting was justified because the officers had tried and were unable to subdue Scozzari with pepper spray and a Taser.

After the two officers were cleared of wrongdoing in Scozzari’s death, Steven Scozzari of Lake Orion , brother of the Clare man, filed a civil suit in March 2008 against the officers, City Manager Ken Hibl and the City of Clare, charging the use of excessive force, deliberate indifference to Scozzari’s medical issues immediately after the shooting, assault and battery, gross negligence, municipal liability, conspiracy to violate Scozzari’s civil rights and discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In November, 2009 the defendants Miedzianowski and McGraw had asked U.S. District Judge Thomas L. Ludington to rule in their favor without a trial. They moved for summary judgment on all claims against them. In April, 2010 The District Court granted the motion in part, denied it in part and held other issues in abeyance according to court documents.

Judge Ludington said the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity from Plaintiff’s constitutional claims, and ordered the parties to brief two new Forth Amendment claims, raised in response to the defendant’s motion. The court also granted summary judgment (dismissed) state-law gross negligence and civil conspiracy claims. Ludington said Steven Scozzari failed to show that the officers agreed to violate William Scozzari’s rights.

He ruled that Scozzari can pursue claims of excessive force because of conflicting witness testimony about the distance between McGraw and William Scozzari and whether McGraw fell to the ground and fired from there.

Ludington said Scozzari could also pursue the claim of indifference because of a delay in allowing crews to administer medical treatment after William Scozzari was shot.

The judge also absolved the city of the conspiracy claim and dismissed claims against Hibl.

Miedzianowski and McGraw filed an appeal of the District Court ruling.

A January 4 United State Court of Appeals decision by a panel of three judges has upheld the earlier District Court decision denying that the officers were eligible for immunity in Scozzari’s shooting death.

According to the court document, the officers believed Scozzari posed a threat, but the court opinion said, “The circumstances here present a genuine question whether the situation compelled a split-second decision to use lethal force.”

Mt. Pleasant State Police contact Joshua Later said in an email Tuesday, “As you know, the Sentinel approached us with possible witnesses.  We are always interested in talking to possible witnesses in any case.  Our Detective Bureau will follow up on the possibility of witnesses.”

Reportedly Det. 1st Lt. Cameron Henke from the 6th District Headquarters in Grand Rapids will supervise a follow up investigation.  Henke was out-of-state and unavailable for comment Wednesday, according to Pam Wheaton, District Secretary.

The two new witnesses, identified as Noelle Hite and Hazel Duke, were reportedly staying at the motel at the time. Both said they witnessed the altercation between Scozzari and the officers, but were not interviewed.

Hite said she saw an officer place a hatchet in Scozzari’s hand after he was shot. Duke said Scozzari had nothing in his hands.

The Court of Appeals report, filed January 4, said “Several motel tenants witnessed the incident; however their accounts sharply contradict Defendants’.

Some other tenants of the Lone Pine had also accused the officers of placing weapon’s near Scozzari’s hands after he was shot, according to According to US Court of Appeals documents outlining the incident.

Jason Miller testified watching from the parking lot about 40 feet away. He said he saw a male silhouette in the doorway “holding something six to seven inches long.”

Wanda Gibbons, also a long-time resident at the motel, said she did not see anything in Scozzari’s hands when officers fired. Another resident, Jeffrey Morgan Sr. said he “did not see any weapon in Scozzzari’s hands or elsewhere…[but later] the weapons were near Scozzari’s head.” He said, “One officer stepped over Scozzari’s  body, entered the cabin and returned with a knife and a hatchet, which he placed on the ground away from the body.”

Another witness, Jeffrey Richardson testified that after the shooting he saw “what appeared to be the butt of a hatchet in one hand (of Scozzari’s body).”

In a letter to the Editor in the January 27 issue of the Review, a writer identified only as “drsuess” denies that Scozzari was unarmed when he was shot. He said, “I was there that night and I watched as all the events unfolded. The man [Scozzari] did have the weapons described in the reports.”

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