Questions Over Estate In Taser Death
Legal Standing to File Lawsuit at Stake
Chelsea — One year after an unarmed Thetford man was killed by a stun gun shot by a Vermont State Police trooper, his mother’s plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against police are in jeopardy because of a recent dispute over who controls his estate.
Rhonda Taylor, the mother of Macadam Mason, had been preparing in recent months to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against state authorities, alleging police protocols and laws were violated when Trooper David Shaffer fired a Taser that struck M ason.
But earlier this month, Fairlee resident Corinna Magalhaes claimed that her 9-year-old daughter Cassidy Mason, whom Mason fathered, is the rightful heir of his estate, and not Taylor.
Only the executor of the estate can file claims relating to Mason’s death.
While attorneys representing Taylor were preparing to file the lawsuit, Magalhaes “would like to avoid a trial or at least explore the possibility of settlement,” her attorney, Gregory McNaughton of Plainfield, Vt., said in court papers.
Mason and Magalhaes engaged in a brief relationship, according to probate court papers, and Mason was not heavily involved in parenting the girl.
Magalhaes did not respond to a message seeking comment yesterday, and Taylor’s attorney, Ed Van Dorn of Orford, declined to comment.
When Taylor was appointed executor of Mason’s estate in July 2012 , Magalhaes did not have an attorney and “did not want to intrude or intervene in what she perceived as Rhonda’s right to resolve,” the estate, McNaughton wrote.
Moreover, she thought the only assets in Mason’s estate were his car and several paintings, and only later came to understand that her daughter could benefit financially from the wrongful death claims, McNaughton wrote.
“Corinna is still respectful of that right but is now aware after consulting with legal counsel that the principal asset of the estate is the wrongful death action that can be filed by the administrator of the estate,” her attorney, McNaughton wrote.
Magalhaes appears to have the law on her side.
In 2009, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the 4-year-old daughter of a man killed in a car accident in Bennington County was the executor of his estate and the person who could file a wrongful death lawsuit, and not the man’s mother.
“In a case such as this one, the laws of descent state that decedent’s minor daughter inherits everything,” justices wrote in a unanimous opinion. “As the only heir to decedent’s estate, minor daughter is therefore next of kin for the purposes of inheritance, bringing a wrongful death claim, and — as we now hold — becoming administrator of decedent’s estate.”
In an interview yesterday, Taylor said the case was in “limbo,” but she does not dispute Magalhaes’ claim and has been coordinating with her for months. Taylor said she hopes to remain a part of the case, and is wary of settling without pushing the state to reveal details of the incident and reforming police practices.
“I’ve always said if there was a settlement we would all discuss it,” Taylor said. “I care about Cassidy having an equitable settlement, but I don’t want it swept under the rug. I hope that I remain in the case. I’m not just looking at a settlement for my granddaughter, I’m looking at change for the people of Vermont.”
A hearing in Orange County Probate Court is expected sometime in July.
Assistant Vermont Attorney General Cindy Maguire declined to comment on the probate dispute.
On June 20, 2012, State Police troopers responded to the Sawnee Bean Road home in Thetford that Theresa Davidonis shared with Mason, 39, after he called Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and threatened to kill himself and others.
State Police have said that Shaffer ordered Mason to lie on his stomach on the ground. Instead, they claim, Mason aggressively walked toward Shaffer with a closed fist.
Shaffer fired his stun gun, striking Mason in the chest and killing him, police said. Davidonis and her son, Aleks, who also witnessed the shooting, have said that Mason never threatened the troopers, but instead raised up his hands in a surrender position, with his palms facing outward.
Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell cleared Shaffer of criminal wrongdoing. Vermont State Police spokeswoman Stephanie Dasaro did not respond to a recent question about Shaffer’s employment status, however, according to the Vermont branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, Shaffer remains on active duty.
Meanwhile yesterday, a phalanx of lawmakers and disabilities rights advocates convened a news conference in Montpelier at the statehouse to mark the one-year anniversary of Mason’s death and urge police to implement a series of reforms and enhanced training practices to prevent another death.
Speakers, including Vermont Legal Aid director Jack McCullough, Vermont ACLU Executive Director Allen Gilbert and former state Human Rights Commission Director Robert Appel, urged lawmakers to pass a bill that would mandate enhanced training for Taser use and limit the scenarios in which police can legally deploy the weapon. It also would require the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council to coordinate training with the Department of Mental Health.
“The police are a hammer, and when you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Appel said.
They were joined by State Rep. Jim Masland, D-Thetford, a neighbor of Mason’s, Orange County State Sen Mark MacDonald, and Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, who are three of 32 co-sponsors of the bill.
“I believe there has been very positive response,” Donahue said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, who opposed an earlier call for a moratorium on police use of Tasers, said he continues to support police use of the weapons.
“I continue to believe that Tasers are an important tool for law enforcement that avoid the need for bullets that inflict much more damage than Tasers,” the governor told the Associated Press.
In response to public concern, Sorrell, who convened a public forum on Taser use earlier this year, has asked multiple agencies to review practices and training for Taser use, Maguire said.
In recent weeks, Sorrell asked the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council to review officer training programs for use of Tasers and interactions with mentally ill subjects, and the Law Enforcement Advisory Board to review protocols for use of Tasers in the field.
Taylor said she supported the legislative push and was heartened that advocates had not forgotten about her son’s death.
“I think that there are a lot of good people that care about Macadam and the people who loved him, and I think they didn’t want people forgetting him,” Taylor said. “It’s going to happen to someone else, and someone else’s family will have to go through this hell.”
Mark Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3304.