Michael Taylor’s death in the back of a police cruiser in 1987 raised questions, many which remain unanswered to this day. It also opened dialogues on race, community relationships, the legal system and policing — and helped usher in change. WRTV is revisiting this chapter in Indianapolis history, not in an effort to open old wounds, but to learn from the circumstances surrounding Taylor’s death and recognize the changes his death led us to as a community.
The Michael Taylor Story: Part One | The Michael Taylor Story: Part Two
Nancy Taylor never believed her son killed himself.
Michael had problems, but she insists nothing about him would suggest he was depressed or suicidal. Nancy Taylor just couldn’t accept the findings of the official investigations.
Michael, she knew in her heart, did not kill himself.
No one was holding police accountable. There were so many more questions she wanted answered.
She hired noted Indianapolis civil rights attorney John O. Moss and filed a wrongful death suit in Marion Superior Court on Aug. 31, 1989.
Nancy Taylor’s lawsuit blamed Michael's death on the officers’ negligence and carelessness. The police failed to keep him safe while he was in their custody and he died.
It would take nine years before the case went to trial in Hancock County before an all-white jury. Then, like today, members of the Black community harbored long-standing complaints over harsh treatment by police.
"To be honest, I guess we didn't have much confidence in the judicial system because of the history of Black people before the courts with an all white jury," Nancy Taylor said.
Nancy Taylor remembers going to court, looking across at the table where the city's legal team crowded together with three lawyers and three more paralegals or assistants. At Nancy's side sat two lawyers, Moss and David Shaheed.
"But if you ever look in the Bible," she said, "every time one of God's people was up against something, they always had less than anybody else and they won."
Nancy Taylor’s lawyers avoided bringing up race in the courtroom, Shaheed said. They believed this civil case was about family, about righting an injustice and about accountability for the officers who failed to live up to their duty.
“We wanted each of those jurors to think about as parents what it would be like if your child, your teenage child, was apprehended by law enforcement and didn't go home,” Shaheed said.
“Most of them were parents. And they understood that if a child got in trouble and was in police custody, they should come home… They shouldn't be found dead in the backseat of a police car.”
Moss, Taylor's lead lawyer, had been a heavyweight in the Indianapolis legal community. He built his reputation when he filed a lawsuit on behalf of Black students in 1968 that led to the desegregation of Indianapolis schools.
“John Moss was a legend,” said Shaheed, who was a young lawyer when he joined the case and gained valuable experience sitting next to Moss over the next decade.
Moss died Dec. 26, 2010, at the age of 74. Shaheed went on to become a Marion County judge before retiring in 2014.
"Being able to work with him on that case was kind of like an amazing opportunity to learn from someone who had forgotten more law than I knew at the time," Shaheed said.
The civil trial began on Feb. 12, 1996.
The case had been transferred to a courthouse in Greenfield, where a Hancock County judge seated a jury of five women and one man. All six jurors were white.
The jury heard five weeks of evidence. According to the Indianapolis Star’s coverage in 1996, some highlights included:
- Officer Edwin Aurs told jurors that Michael did not seem despondent, but he asked Aurs to take him home instead of the juvenile center.
- Penniston testified he heard a pop as he was pulling into the juvenile center. He turned to find Michael unconscious in the back seat. The boy’s hand was gripping a revolver, Penniston testified.
- Nancy Taylor told jurors Michael was a quiet, happy teen who had been looking forward to getting his driver’s license. Jurors did not hear about Michael’s prior brushes with the legal system or that he had spent a year in a boy's school.
- The jurors viewed videos in which several police recruits acting as demonstrators reenacted how a suspect handcuffed in the back of a squad car could reach into his shoe and fire a gun at his head.
Mary Ann Oldham, the lawyer for the city, and John Kautzman, who represented the officers, said Michael’s death was a tragedy but the city and its police were not responsible.
Michael, they argued, caused his own death. He was the one who fired that gun, whether deliberate or an accident. His mother should not be awarded damages, they argued.
Both lawyers said the facts and evidence supported the theory that Michael killed himself. There was no credible evidence that linked the officers to the shooting, they said.
Officers failed to find the hidden weapon, Oldham and Kautzman said, but they didn't kill Michael.
“I look at the bare facts,” Oldham told WRTV in a Zoom interview.
“I mean, if you take it like that and don't include any other elements, it doesn't make any sense. It shows that the cops could not have done this.”
“I thought the police officers were professional and would not have done anything intentionally to harm this kid,” Kautzman said in a Zoom interview.
There are some bad officers, but Kautzman said the vast majority are hard-working and honest.
“And these officers were good examples of good cops, in my view,” Kautzman said.
Penniston and Aurs both testified at the civil trial. They said under oath they did not kill Michael.
Penniston and Aurs each served a one-day suspension for failing to properly search Michael Taylor.
A third officer involved in the arrest, Stephen Fogleman, died in 1994, two years before the case went to trial.
Penniston and Aurs were contacted by WRTV and declined to be interviewed.
A stunning verdict
Jurors just didn’t believe Michael killed himself.
The jury deliberated for about 12 hours before finding in favor of Nancy Taylor. It awarded her a judgment of $4.3 million.
“I think he was murdered,” Bonnie Andrews told WRTV in a recent interview. Andrews served as the foreman on that civil case.
“I don't think that he did that. I don't think he committed suicide. There was too much evidence that was presented that just didn't come common sense wise.”
City lawyers were stunned. Nancy Taylor and her supporters were elated.
“I’ve never had any doubt. I never had any problem about coming to Greenfield,” Nancy Taylor told reporters after the verdict. “God has people everywhere. White and Black.”
In her recent interview with WRTV, Taylor recalled the moment when the jury's verdict was announced
"It was like they were naming off the amounts and stuff and I couldn't even figure out how much that was. You know. it was just surreal," Taylor said. "I mean, it was like you were in a dream. It was like it wasn't real."
The legal wrangling continued for four more years as the city appealed, seeking to reduce and overturn the judgement.
In 2000, then-newly elected Mayor Bart Peterson closed this chapter of Indianapolis history and settled with Michael Taylor’s family for $1.9 million.
“There have been multiple investigations, a trial, a court of appeals ruling, and appeal from those rulings,” Peterson said at the time. “We may never know exactly what happened. It think it better to close this chapter and move on.”
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @vicryc.