Featured photo: Joe Lopez kneels next to his son, Joseph Lopez’s grave at Lakeview Memorial Park. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

On May 29, a federal appeals court denied a former Greensboro police officer’s immunity claim in a civil lawsuit filed by Joe Lopez after the officer killed Lopez’s son in November 2021.

The federal court’s decision reaffirms a lower court’s 2023 decision to deny former officer Matthew Hamilton’s request for qualified immunity and public official immunity.

In the filing from last week, three judges affirmed the lower court’s decision, stating that “Officer Hamilton violated Lopez’ clearly established rights” and noted that Hamilton’s “use of deadly force was unreasonable.”

The civil rights lawsuit stems from the killing of Joseph Lopez by Hamilton on Nov. 19, 2021.

 As Triad City Beat has reported, Lopez was shot and killed after he was located in the shed behind a home. Subsequent body-camera footage released in 2022 found that Hamilton shot Lopez, who was unarmed, in the face after he sent a police dog  into the shed to draw Lopez out.

Joseph Lopez was shot and killed by a Greensboro police officer on Nov. 19, 2021. (courtesy photo)

The appeal’s court ruled that “Lopez did not pose an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others. At the time he was shot, Lopez was fifteen feet away from Officer Hamilton, had just been attacked by a dog, was unarmed, and did not make any threats. Deadly force in these circumstances is simply not justified.”

In addition to the civil lawsuit, a separate criminal proceeding is also in progress after a grand jury indicted Matthew on June 6, 2022 for the crime of manslaughter. 

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Joe Lopez told TCB that the news “keeps filling [his] heart with joy.”

“I’m finally seeing some light that justice is going to come out of it,” Lopez said.

Since filing the civil lawsuit in June 2023, Lopez said that the case has gone back and forth between Hamilton’s attorneys who are being paid by the city and his own attorneys.

“I was worried for a while,” Lopez said. “It didn’t look like anything was going to happen; nothing was moving. It was all in a standstill.”

Lopez is being represented by attorneys Graham Holt and Flint Taylor, both of whom have represented the families of victims of police violence in the Triad, including Marcus Deon Smith. Hamilton, who was fired from the Greensboro Police Department after the criminal indictment, is being represented by Amiel Rossabi and attorneys with the Womble Bond Dickinson group. Rossabi has frequently represented other police officers who have used violence or killed Greensboro residents in the past.

Attorney Flint Taylor speaks during a press conference about the killing of Joseph Lopez on June 6, 2022 at the Beloved Community Center. (photo by Juliet Coen)

Rossabi could not be reached for comment for this story.

According to Chuck Watts, Greensboro’s city attorney, city policy states that they are obligated to provide defense to police officers involved in lawsuits. The fact that Hamilton was fired after the criminal indictment doesn’t matter because the case stems from when he was employed by the Greensboro Police Department, Watts explained.

According to public records requests filed (here and here) by activist Lewis Pitts, the city has spent close to $170,000 in taxpayer dollars to represent Matthew Hamilton as of January.

As TCB has reported, the city has spent more than $4 million since 2018 defending police officers who use force.

What’s next?

Now that a federal court has reaffirmed the denial for immunity, the case can move forward in a number of ways, according to Lopez’s attorney Flint Taylor. One, Hamilton’s attorneys could petition for a rehearing to a higher court. Two, they could push for summary judgment which means a judge would decide the case without a trial. Three, they could continue with the case in trial court.

Taylor told TCB on Tuesday that petitioning to a higher court again would be “a frivolous appeal” as would moving for summary judgment.

Instead, Taylor said that they plan on continuing with the case and will seek to question Hamilton and other officers who were on the scene that day. Watts affirmed that discovery, or the process by which both sides exchange information about the witnesses and evidence they’ll present at trial, is in progress.

“We’re going to pursue the evidence of failure to train and discipline Greensboro officers,” Taylor said.

The ultimate resolution, Taylor said, will be through a judgment by a jury or a settlement with the city that fairly compensates the family for “the egregious misconduct” by Hamilton.

In the case of Marcus Deon Smith, the civil lawsuit went on for more than three years and ended with a $2.57 million settlement between the city and the Smith family.

But no amount of money will bring loved ones back, Taylor said.

“They certainly owe the Lopez family not only a fair compensation but an apology for this officer’s egregious actions,” Taylor said.

Since his son was killed in 2021, Lopez said that his daughter has been struggling the most.

“They miss him a lot,” he said.

Everyday, Lopez said he visits his son’s grave at Lakeview Memorial Park where he works as the superintendent. His son is buried next to his father, Lopez said.

Joe Lopez, father of Joseph Lopez, listens to speakers during a press conference on June 6, 2022 at the Beloved Community Center. (photo by Juliet Coen)

“Everyday, every morning, I come in and talk to my mom and then I ride over and talk to my son and my dad,” Lopez said. “And I do it again every afternoon before I go home.”

While he’s still struggling with the pain of losing his child, Lopez said that he’s “trying to live one day at a time.”

“I have to stay strong for my boy,” he said.

Read the federal court’s decision here. Read past reporting on the Joseph Lopez case here.

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