Black Springbreak Lawsuit

The family of a Columbia man shot and killed by Gulfport police during Black Springbreak 2000 can pursue a $50 million lawsuit only against the officers involved in the shooting, a federal judge has ruled. U.S. District Judge David Bramlett denied a request last week to dismiss the wrongful-death suit filed in April by the family of Mitchell Virgil Jr. The judge, however, did dismiss the city of Gulfport as a defendant.

Virgil, who was black, was shot to death April 8, 2000. He was carrying a loaded .357-caliber Magnum when he was killed outside the vehicle during a traffic stop on U.S. 49. Gulfport Police Sgt. Brian Donavant and officer Bill Bennett were involved in the shooting. At the time, Virgil was in town for the springbreak event. Bramlett dismissed a claim of gross negligence and a charge that the officers conspired to deprive Virgil of a constitutional right. Bramlett ruled that Virgil's family must prove the officers knowingly or intentionally committed a wrongful act. ``This is a victory for the family,'' said LaQuetta Golden, attorney for Beverly and Mitchell Virgil Sr. ``It shows that the judge is not going to allow the officers to be dismissed at this point. We now have an opportunity to question the officers involved.''

Assistant city attorney Jeff Bruni said the city is still involved because it is representing the two officers. The city and the officers claim that Donavant was justified when he shot Virgil during a traffic stop. Donavant and Bennett said they discovered a weapon hidden in the pants pocket of Virgil after they stopped him. The suit accuses the officers of civil rights violations, assault, battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, wrongful death, public humiliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. According to the suit, Bennett placed Virgil in a choke hold and Donavant shot Virgil three times, once in the finger and twice in the upper left chest. The officers said they struggled to retrieve the weapon before shooting Virgil.

Both officers were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing following an investigation by a Harrison County grand jury. The grand jury said that Donavant reacted properly because he followed police policy and fired his weapon after he perceived a reasonable threat of death or serious bodily harm at the hands of Virgil. ``I am happy that the judge didn't throw the case out,'' said Beverly Virgil. ``My family and I just want justice for my son and for us.''