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A federal appeals court said Thursday the family of a 67-year-old man shot to death after two off-duty police officers entered his Little Rock apartment without a warrant or an invitation can move forward with a lawsuit.
 
Eugene Ellison died Dec. 9, 2010. His family alleges Officer Donna Lesher and Detective Tabitha McCrillis, working as private security guards, unlawfully entered his home and that Lesher improperly used deadly force following an argument and scuffle.

Prosecutors declined to press charges, saying the officers' attempts to use non-lethal means to subdue Ellison had failed. The women remain on the force.

Thursday's decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis did not address the merits of the case, only whether the officers could be sued along with the apartment complex that hired them. The three-judge panel said that, at this stage, courts were obligated to consider the case only from the Ellison family's perspective.

The officers have said they noticed through an open door that Ellison's apartment was in disarray and that when they asked if he was OK, Ellison responded with an ambiguous "What does it look like?"

"The apartment was very disheveled. ... The glass-topped coffee table was shattered in an area in front of Mr. Ellison," said Bill Mann, a deputy city attorney for Little Rock. "The manner in which Mr. Ellison spoke led them to be suspicious and wonder if he really was OK."

As officers checked on Ellison, he became "mouthy," according to McCrillis. After a struggle, Lesher fired twice, believing Ellison was reaching for a cane he could have used to strike her after refusing her commands to lie down.

A lawyer for the family said Thursday that, in light of the ruling, the city needed "to grasp and to own" that its officers had acted improperly.


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