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After a deputy shot a man, the man's family sued but the deputy got an award

In this image taken from Pueblo County Sheriff's police body camera provided by attorney Darold Killmer, Richard Ward sits in the backseat of a vehicle as he is questioned by Pueblo County Sheriff's Deputy Charles McWhorter on Feb. 22, 2022.
AP
In this image taken from Pueblo County Sheriff's police body camera provided by attorney Darold Killmer, Richard Ward sits in the backseat of a vehicle as he is questioned by Pueblo County Sheriff's Deputy Charles McWhorter on Feb. 22, 2022.

A Colorado sheriff's department is taking heat for giving one of its deputies an award for injuries he sustained during a violent incident last year.

The awards ceremony this month for Pueblo County Sheriff's Deputy Charles McWhorter came just days before the family of the man he shot and killed in the very same incident filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court.

The Purple Heart award for McWhorter was first reported by The Pueblo Chieftain.

Darold Killmer, an attorney for the family of Richard Ward, said in an emailed statement to NPR that Ward's family didn't know about the award before filing the suit, but that it was a "truly a brazen act which mocks the very purpose of a Purple Heart."

"Pueblo's cynical efforts to somehow make McWhorter a hero under these circumstances is disgusting," Killmer said.

The Pueblo County Sheriff's Department did not immediately respond to NPR's request for a comment.

On Feb. 22, 2022, authorities said Pueblo County Sheriff's Deputies were called to a local middle school to investigate a "report of a man knocking on windows of vehicles."

Newly released body camera footage shows McWhorter talking to Ward, who is sitting in the back of his mother's car. Ward's mother and her boyfriend are in the front seats, and the three of them were waiting to pick up Ward's younger brother from Liberty Point International Middle School.

Ward had gone for a brief walk while they waited, his family said. In the video footage, Ward explains to McWhorter that when he returned from the walk he mistakenly got into a different car that looked similar to his mother's. Ward says he apologized to the driver and left.

McWhorter asks Ward if he has an ID or any weapons, and Ward says he might have a pocket knife but doesn't produce one. Ward instead finds an anti-anxiety pill and takes it.

McWhorter loudly asks Ward what he put in his mouth before he and Deputy Cassandra Gonzales pull Ward from the car and wrestle him to the ground.

After a brief scuffle, McWhorter shoots Ward — who was unarmed — three times. McWhorter tells Gonzales: "He headbutted my nose and then tried grabbing at my stuff."

According to the wrongful death lawsuit filed by his family, Ward suffered from anxiety around police and took an anti-anxiety tablet in the back seat of the car.

The suit — which names McWhorter and Gonzales, other officers and Pueblo County as defendants — claims McWhorter had "no legitimate law enforcement purpose" to fire his gun and that he violated Ward's constitutional rights.

In October, Colorado's 10th Judicial District Attorney J.E. Chostner concluded that the use of force by McWhorter and Gonzales was justified and that no criminal charges would be filed against them.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez