More than four years after Clear Creek County Deputy Don Wilson shot Cody Cox in the neck after a car chase on Interstate 70 near Georgetown, leaving him paralyzed, a jury has found that the deputy's actions were justified.
Attorney Gordon Vaughan, who represented Wilson in the case, says that his client was gratified by the verdict but took no joy in it. "Anybody who caused somebody as serious an injury as Mr. Cox has would feel bad about it. But as tragic as his injury is, it was due to the choices Mr. Cox made — and the lack of choices he gave Deputy Wilson."
Cox was known to local law enforcers prior to his fateful encounter with Wilson. A Nederland Police Department memo, accessible below along with Cox's original lawsuit, reads in part: "Our own department had a number of issues with him. ... Officer Manzione arrested him approximately one month ago at the Post Office after a hit and run, where two citizens were holding him down upon arrival. Approximately two years ago, he was arrested...on a Domestic Violence case, where he also fought with officers."
On January 31, 2014, Cox ran afoul of the law again, during a Friday afternoon that was marked by heavy ski-season traffic.
On that day, Vaughan says, "Mr. Cox was driving westbound on I-70, and there were a number of 911 calls about his driving behavior. He was reported to have slid off the road and hit the guardrail, and one person reported that he had struck him and continued on. There was also at least one family that started taking videos of his driving. Only a portion of the video was allowed to be played in court, but the longer version showed some very troubling driving behavior: spinning out and driving conduct so bad that, at times, it almost looked like he was doing it on purpose."
As it turned out, Vaughan continues, "Mr. Cox was very intoxicated. He had a .237 blood-alcohol content," or approximately three times over the .08 BAC legal limit for alcohol intoxication.
Kevin Klaus, another Clear Creek County deputy, was the first officer to respond to reports about Cox's driving, with Wilson subsequently joining the pursuit.
"Deputy Klaus tried to stop him first," Vaughan allows. "In fact, on one occasion, the Cox vehicle spun out and was facing eastbound in the westbound lanes, so he was looking directly at Deputy Klaus. But Mr. Cox didn't stop. He turned around and continued on. And even when the traffic got really bad, just before the Georgetown exit, he kept darting in between cars."
After Wilson followed Cox into this mess, Vaughan goes on, the deputy "went to his PA system multiple times, ordering Mr. Cox to pull over and stop his car — but he wouldn't do it. That's when a citizen saw what was going on in her rear-view mirror behind her and very bravely, I think, stopped her vehicle in a place that she hoped would prevent Mr. Cox from driving anymore. And when Deputy Wilson pulled up to the side of Mr. Cox, he saw it as an opportunity to get out and physically take control of the vehicle."
What happened next is in dispute. The lawsuit maintains that Cox rolled down his passenger-side window at Wilson's request, at which point the deputy pointed his gun inside and shot Cox in the lower-right area of his neck, resulting in what's described as "a compound fracture of the cervical spine, and injury to his spinal cord." The suit also argues that while Cox's vehicle rolled forward and struck the vehicle in front of it, the movement only took place after the shooting. Prior to that, the document states, his "vehicle was at or near a complete stop. At the time, the plaintfiff did not pose an immediate threat to the safety of the defendant or others, was not actively resisting arrest, and was not attempting to evade arrest by flight. There existed no other justification for the defendant's application of deadly force against the plaintiff."
Vaughan's account is quite different: "Mr. Cox drove toward Deputy Wilson in a way that made him believe he was about to be crushed between his vehicle and Mr. Cox's vehicle. The final resting place of the two vehicles was only between two-feet-four inches and two-feet-ten inches apart, and Deputy Wilson is a pretty big man. He had almost no room left, so he fired one shot, leaving him a tetraplegic — he's got use of one arm," but is otherwise paralyzed from the neck down.
This shooting didn't take place in a vacuum, Vaughan notes. "I want to emphasize how dangerous the conduct of his driving was. The deputies didn't know what was going on with this guy. He wasn't obeying orders, wasn't stopping. They didn't know if he was trying to get away from committing a serious crime, didn't know if he was armed. There were a lot of factors going on."
The legal team representing Cox asked for approximately $40 million in damages. But after deliberating for a day, Vaughan points out, the jury "determined that Deputy Wilson hadn't violated Mr. Cox's constitutional rights."
Wilson is no longer a police officer. He retired a couple of years after the incident, completing a career in policing that lasted more than thirty years. The deputy hadn't shot at anyone before Cox and didn't do so afterward.
When asked about the broader significance of the case, Vaughan stresses that "I don't want to get political. But I've been defending public-sector employees, a large portion of which are law enforcement officers, for over three decades. I'm sensitive to and understand that it's important to have a conversation about the use of force — but when we have that conversation, we need to keep in mind that law enforcement officers have very hard jobs. The fact is, they have a right to defend themselves and the public, and they also have a right to go home to their children and their wives at the end of the day. And just because something is alleged in a lawsuit doesn't mean it's correct."