Immunity for Police Means Despair for Korryn Gaines' Family

A Baltimore County judge has rescinded a $38 million damage award to the family of Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old Black woman who was fatally shot by county police in 2016. Gaines, a mother of two with a history of mental illness, was killed after a six-hour police standoff that was partially streamed live on Instagram. During the standoff, Gaines allegedly pointed a shotgun at officers who were trying to serve an arrest warrant for a missed court date. The bullet that killed Gaines also injured her then-5-year-old son, Kodi.

A civil trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court found that the deadly shot fired by Cpl. Royce Ruby “was not reasonable” and violated Gaines’s and her son’s civil rights. In February 2018, a jury awarded Gaines’s family damages, including reparations for medical bills, funeral arrangements, and non-economic damages. Kodi was awarded $32 million in damages; his sister was awarded $4.5 million, while Gaines’s parents received $607,000, and her estate was awarded another $300,000. “This win is for all of my sisters in the movement who have lost their children to police violence,” Rhanda Dormeus, Gaines’s mother, told reporters at the time. “Some of them have never received justice, either criminally or civil. I just want to tell them that this win is for them.”

Yet on Friday, February 15, Judge Mickey J. Norman dismissed the family’s claims against Baltimore County and the officer, overturning his 2018 civil ruling. According to The Baltimore Sun, Norman concluded that Ruby’s actions were “objectively reasonable” and did not violate Gaines’s Fourth Amendment right against unlawful seizure. Ruby was never criminally charged and, in 2017, was promoted from officer to corporal.

The Gaines family had not yet collected their damage awards due to Baltimore County’s appeal of the civil trial. Kenneth Ravenell, a lawyer representing Kodi, told The New York Times that he planned to appeal the decision. He called the judge’s opinion “factually wrong and legally flawed in many respects.” Judge Norman, a former state trooper, found Ruby entitled to qualified immunity – a legal protection often invoked in police-involved violence that prevents law enforcement and other officials from civil liability in the line of duty. This legal doctrine has long been criticized by civil rights and criminal justice reform advocates, who believe qualified immunity erodes confidence in official accountability. In July 2018, a multi-partisan advocacy group appealed to the Supreme Court to reconsider rulings on qualified immunity.

“Qualified immunity denies justice to victims of unconstitutional misconduct,” the group wrote, according to The New York Times. “It imposes cost prohibitive burdens on civil-rights litigants. And it harms the very public officials it seeks to protect. In short, our nation’s experience with qualified immunity has made the court’s earlier error all the more egregious and harmful.”

Reforming qualified immunity is a complex, arduous process that has received tepid support from both sides of the isle. According to The New Republic, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas and liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor have both objected to the doctrine – but, of course, on different grounds.

About the Author

Jessica Lipsky is the content editor for The North Star. Her work as an editor and reporter has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Vice, Billboard, Remezcla, Timeline and LA Weekly, among others. She regularly pens authoritative features on subculture, broke several music industry-focused #MeToo stories and also writes on the business of music.