LIMA, Ohio - No onedisputes the fact that Sgt. Joe Chavalia couldn't see who he was aiming at when he shot Tarika Wilson with her 1-year-old son in her arms.
The question before jurors hearing evidence in the case against the veteran Lima police officer is whether he was justified in pulling the trigger.
Special Prosecutor Jeff Strausbaugh told the jury yesterday that what Sergeant Chavalia did was criminally negligent -- that he should have had a clear target before pulling the trigger.
But defense attorney Bill Kluge said in his opening statement that SWAT team members are forced to make split-second decisions about what's a threat and don't always have the luxury of positively identifying their target.
"He did absolutely everything right," Mr. Kluge said. "He was not negligent. There was not a substantial lapse in due care."
Sergeant Chavalia, 52, is on trial in Allen County Common Pleas Court for two misdemeanors: negligent homicide for the fatal shooting of Tarika Wilson, 26, during a drug raid at her Third Street home Jan. 4 and negligent assault for wounding Wilson's 1-year-old son, Sincere.
Mr. Strausbaugh said Sergeant Chavalia's view of his target was limited to what he could see in a poorly lit stairwell through a stair railing, and that when he heard gunshots and saw movement upstairs, he "aimed and fired a fully automatic weapon."
"The movement that he has upstairs in that doorway is Tarika Wilson and her baby who she is holding in her arms," Mr. Strausbaugh said. "She's unarmed."
While the prosecutor said the case will center around the def-inition of negligence, Mr. Kluge had a different interpretation of Sergeant Chavalia's actions.
Mr. Kluge told the jury that Lima's SWAT team was serving the most dangerous type of search warrant - a night-time, no-knock raid in which Wilson's boyfriend, Anthony Terry, a convicted drug dealer who once tried to wrestle a police officer's gun from him, was likely inside the house.
He said Sergeant Chavalia was headed up the stairs of the two-story house when he saw a shadowy figure lean in and out of a doorway, ignoring commands to get on the floor.
When the sergeant heard the sound of gunshots - shots that actually were fired in the kitchen at two pitbull dogs released from a bedroom by Terry - Mr. Kluge said Sergeant Chavalia fired his weapon "thinking he's taking fire" from the figure upstairs.
Mr. Kluge said any officer who saw someone moving in and out of a doorway would consider that person a threat.
"It's just that simple," he said. "It's tragic, but it's that simple."
Among the witnesses who took the stand, Lima police Sgt. Ronald Holman said he helped plan the entry into the house the night of the raid and followed Sergeant Chavalia up the stairs. He testified that he was "less than a foot behind him" as they went upstairs.
Sergeant Holman said when he heard gunfire, he turned to his left, sensing the shots had come from downstairs. Not long after, he said, he heard Sergeant Chavalia fire his weapon, then felt him put his hand back toward him to indicate he should not go any further.
When the two went upstairs, he said, he saw a badly wounded Wilson huddled against a wall on her knees, clutching a child in her left arm. The child was bleeding from a shoulder wound.
Sergeant Holman said he called for medical help, picked up the baby, and placed him on the bed where he applied pressure to the wound to stop the flow of blood.
Both Mr. Kluge and Mr. Strausbaugh asked Sergeant Holman repeatedly where the first gunshots came from, and he said that while he didn't know who had fired, he believed they came from the first floor.
Special Agent Keith Williamson, a crime scene investigator with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, testified earlier in the day that a total of seven rounds were fired in the house - four in the kitchen, where the two dogs were shot, and three upstairs, where Wilson and her son were shot.
He said there was no evidence to show a weapon was fired from upstairs down to the stairwell.
Family members of Wilson gasped and shook their heads when Mr. Williamson showed the jury the black Colt fully automatic rifle Sergeant Chavalia used that night.
An examination by Todd Wharton, a firearms specialist with BCII, showed the weapon had been fired three times.
As three of the officers who took part in the Jan. 4 raid took the stand, Mr. Kluge questioned them about the dangerous nature of the raid and their need to act quickly to ensure the safety of themselves, their fellow officers, and the people inside the home they were raiding.
Officer Timothy Goedde, who was outside the house during the raid and heard the two sets of gunshots, agreed with Mr. Kluge's assertion that people who did not comply with officers' orders to get down constitute a serious threat.
"If they failed to comply and I felt threatened, I'd fire," Officer Goedde said.
Mr. Kluge told the jury in his opening statement that the death of Wilson was tragic, but so was the fact that Sergeant Chavalia was in court charged with a crime.
"You know who caused the death of Tarika Wilson? Anthony Terry. And who caused the injury to Sincere Wilson? Anthony Terry," Mr. Kluge told the jury. "And who caused Joe to be in here? Anthony Terry, but it ain't Anthony Terry" sitting in the courtroom.
Terry, 32, who was arrested the night of the raid, later pleaded guilty to one count of trafficking in cocaine and two counts each of trafficking in marijuana and permitting drug abuse. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Testimony is to resume at 9 a.m. today.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at:
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