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Attorney accuses police of using excessive force in August shooting

By Julianne Hanckel and Sasha Goldstein

Publication: The Day

Published December 23. 2011 4:00AM

The New Haven man who was shot four times by a New London police officer is paralyzed from the waist down and is undergoing extensive therapy and rehabilitation, according to a lawyer from the firm that represents him.

Curtis Cunningham, 27, is suing the city and Officer Thomas Northup, who shot Cunningham on Aug. 24 after Cunningham allegedly stole an ice truck from outside a Montauk Avenue liquor store and subsequently crashed it when he lost control of the truck as he took a sharp left turn onto Jefferson Avenue from Bank Street.

New London police turned the investigation of the shooting and the alleged theft over to the state police. The investigation is "open and active," Lt. J. Paul Vance, the state police spokesman, said Wednesday.

Cunningham's attorney is on vacation but his law-firm partner, Joel Faxon, said Wednesday that Cunningham is scheduled to go to Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford for a "significant rehabilitation period."

While the federal lawsuit filed last Friday in New Haven did not detail the monetary compensation Cunningham is seeking, Paxon said the cost of future care for a person with paraplegia is between $10 million and $15 million.

New London taxpayers are not at risk when it comes to settling the case, Faxon said, as the city is insured by the Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency, which will hire a lawyer to represent Northup and the city in the federal case. Faxon said he expects the case to take a couple of years to go to trial if a settlement can't be reached outside of court.

He said that the law firm is still collecting specifics on Cunningham's future medical needs.

"Two months ago, we just settled a spinal cord injury case, which was the largest pretrial settlement ever in Connecticut," Paxon said.

The more than $23 million settlement was awarded to Benjamin Wohlfert, who was paralyzed in a construction accident in 2006.

Faxon said he has seen photographs of Officer Northup shooting Cunningham, as well as a slide show of the pictures of the shooting.

"It certainly doesn't appear that the gentleman climbing on the truck was in fear of any harm being inflicted upon him and, at that same time, (Northup is) blasting away inside a truck that was tipped over," Faxon said. "What I'm seeing in the contemporaneous photos of the event certainly doesn't appear to be any fear for the safety of the officers at the time he's shooting, and if the officers are not in fear for their lives, they cannot pull the trigger. That's an excessive use of force, which our Constitution prohibits."

When he was shot in August, Cunningham was out of jail on a $10,000 surety bond he had posted in June following an arrest in West Haven for possession of narcotics, possession of narcotics with the intent to sell and possession of a controlled substance with the intent to sell within 1,500 feet of a school. On those charges, Cunningham is scheduled to appear in Milford Superior Court Feb. 8.

In 2007, Cunningham served 30 months in jail for assaulting a New Haven public safety officer and in June of this year was convicted in New Haven of two counts of driving with a suspended license.

Vance said Thursday that a lawsuit does not influence the investigation, which he said should be complete "in the not-so-distant future." If charges are filed against Cunningham, Vance said, they would be revealed once the investigation is complete and made public.

But he said state police are looking at everything, from what led up to the shooting to the circumstances surrounding the shooting.

"We don't comment on any open investigation of any kind. ... Our intent here is to answer any and all questions as to what transpired and present that to the state's attorney for their review," he said.

j.hanckel@theday.com

s.goldstein@theday.com

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