Jury selection underway in wrongful death case involving fired, imprisoned former Phila. cop

By Jon Campisi | Dec 4, 2012

Jury selection was scheduled to begin this week in the civil trial of a since-fired and

convicted former Philadelphia police officer who is serving a life prison sentence for killing a city man during a confrontation outside of the defendant’s home three years ago.

Lawyers representing the family of slain Port Richmond resident William Panas, Jr. were expected to be in federal court beginning on Monday to pick a jury in the civil case against Frank Tepper and the City of Philadelphia.

Tepper was found guilty of murder earlier this year in the killing of Panas, which occurred following an argument outside of Tepper’s Elkart Street home back on Nov. 21, 2009.

Court records show that Tepper had been drinking heavily during a party at his home in the city’s Port Richmond neighborhood on the night in question, and shot Panas, who was a passerby by outside the home, after a confrontation that began outside of Tepper’s house.

Panas, who did not appear to be involved in the initial fight among a group of people outside Tepper’s home, and simply happened to be walking by the house, had apparently attempted to quell the violence when he was shot at random by the former city cop out of anger.

The parents of the victim, William Panas, Sr., and his wife, Karen Panas, filed a wrongful death suit against Tepper and the City of Philadelphia in September 2010.

The complaint was originally filed in state court but was removed to the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia because it also contained federal civil rights allegations.

The lawsuit faults the city for failing to fire Tepper after being made aware of previous complaints regarding Tepper’s temperament.

It says that the city should have gotten rid of Tepper when it became known to them that the man was “irrational and unstable.”

Specifically, Tepper had been the subject of prior police department Internal Affairs investigations relating to his conduct.

Local news reports stated that Tepper once pointed his pistol at a 10-year-old neighborhood youth because the boy’s basketball dribbling was bothering Tepper.

“Police Officer Tepper was known or should have been known to all defendants to be a ‘loose cannon’ with an uncontrollable temper, who routinely engaged in acts of violence and repeatedly violated the policies, rules, and regulations of the Philadelphia Police Department regarding, inter alia, the use of firearms, force and deadly force,” the lawsuit states.

Somewhat ironically, Tepper’s last assignment before his termination was that of a Civil Affairs cop, whose members are in charge of crowd control at things like rallies, protests and labor disputes.

Civil Affairs officers are tasked with quelling potential heated interactions among members of those types of events.

The Panas family is seeking millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages.

They are being represented by Joseph Cappelli and Shawn Sassaman, of the Montgomery County firm Cappelli Mustin, as well as high-profile Philadelphia lawyer Jimmy Binns.

Binns, who helped start the “Hero Cops” plaque dedication program, which honors city police officers and firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty, rarely finds himself going up against the Philadelphia Police Department, such as he is doing in this case.

He told the Philadelphia Inquirer this week, however, that he is merely doing his day job as an attorney.

“This has nothing to do with the valor of the individual police officers,” he was quoted as saying. “It’s simply a question of the shortcomings of the customs and practices within the department.”

The complaint contains various counts against both Tepper and the city, including negligence, assault and battery, wrongful death and civil rights claims.

On Nov. 29, the court docket in the case shows, attorneys from the City Solicitor’s Office filed a motion seeking to preclude Joel Stine, a plaintiffs’ expert witness, from offering testimony on whether Tepper was considered a state actor at the time he murdered Panas.

Stein concluded in his report that Tepper was a state actor at the time of the murder, since Tepper was, “in the process of exercising police authority when he murdered William Panas,” the court record shows.

The city lawyers, however, contend that these conclusions are impermissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence.

“Mr. Stein’s conclusion addresses the legal issue at the crux of this case and will usurp the role of the jury in this matter by telling the jury which decisions they should reach,” the motion reads. “Moreover, an expert’s testimony must be based upon sufficient facts or data and must be the product of reliable principles and methods applied to the facts of the case.”

The attorneys went on to write that Stine has not identified any relevant or reliable methodology by which he reaches his conclusions, rather, he merely “speculates that Tepper must have been a state actor because he displayed a badge.”

The record shows that U.S. District Judge Legrome D. Davis, who is overseeing the case, has not yet ruled on the defense motion.

On Monday, however, Binns, the Panas family attorney, filed a response to the city’s motion, stating that city lawyers were wrong in their assessment because Stine’s report “makes absolutely no reference whatsoever to a ‘state actor.’

“The City’s legal argument is as specious as its misstatement of what is contained in the Plaintiff’s expert report,” Binns wrote in his retort. “If the City wished to question Mr. Stine’s expertise they had ample time to do so. They have been in receipt of his report since April 26, 2012. The time for filing a Daubert motion has long since expired.”

Additionally, Binns wrote that Stine’s report is, in fact, “peppered with relevant and reliable methodology by which he reached his opinions. Far from being based on speculation, his opinions are predicated on facts. Mr. Stine underpins his expert report with an analysis of co-defendant Tepper’s actions over a 16 year career with specific reference to a multitude of facts not legal conclusions.”

The trial is expected to last about a week or so.

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