This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system, USA Today Network and AL.com. Sign up for The Marshall Project newsletter, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.
RAINBOW CITY, Ala. — Seventeen-year-old Tiara Helm danced and bobbed her head to the music, swaying among hundreds of concert-goers packed inside a theater in this small city northeast of Birmingham. Rapper Kevin Gates electrified the crowd as strobe lights pulsed.
Suddenly, Helm collapsed. Her body convulsed. Her head thrashed against the concrete floor.
She was gripped by one of the seizures that had plagued her since a car accident. When
the high school junior came to, she found four Rainbow City police officers on top of her, pinning her down. Scared and disoriented, she begged to be let go and fought to get free.
The officers, who initially tried to keep her from hurting herself, decided she had become combative, according to multiple court records. They tightened their holds, leaving red marks on her arms. One wrapped his forearm around her neck in a headlock.
A fifth officer arrived — armed with a Taser. He warned her he would use it if she didn’t settle down and behave. She cursed at him. He pressed the Taser into her abdomen and pulled the trigger. Her body jerked. She screeched in pain.
Paramedics took Helm to a hospital in nearby Gadsden, where she was soon released, court records show. Officers never arrested her or charged her with anything.
Little of what happened to Helm is in dispute. Having a seizure is not a crime. She was not a threat to the police or general public, as a judge later ruled. Using a stun gun on someone who has been having seizures isn’t department policy or standard medical procedure. In fact, medical experts warn against even holding down people having seizures because they can perceive restraints as assaults.
There was no internal affairs investigation of the January 2015 incident, according to the police chief, who was one of the officers involved. The officer who used the Taser on Helm was promoted about a year later.
Helm said she never got an apology from police, or even an acknowledgment that they mistreated her. “That somebody could ever do something like that on purpose — never will that be okay,” she said.
Eventually, Helm and her family turned to the last resort of people who think they were wronged by police: a lawsuit.
Every year, thousands of people file lawsuits against the police in federal court, alleging that officers violated their civil rights. It can take years to go to trial.
Most don’t get that far. Federal judges dismiss the majority of cases in favor of police. Officers are often protected by “qualified immunity” — a legal doctrine that shields government workers from being sued for their actions on the job, except in rare circumstances.
About 5% of plaintiffs who claim police abuse make it to trial, according to Craig Futterman, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. Of those, only a third prevail in court.
“There is an extraordinary imbalance in terms of both power and presumed credibility,” Futterman said.
In July 2015, Helm filed a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, claiming police used excessive force, falsely imprisoned her and three officers failed to intervene to protect her from harm.
Helm had no idea back then, she said in an interview, that she would grow into an adult as her case slogged through the federal civil court system.
Helm said she can almost draw a line through her life. Before the concert. And after.
She grew up in Rainbow City, 26 square miles of rolling rural roads with views of the Coosa River. It’s home to just over 10,000 people — and a 25-officer police department.
Daniel Helm, her father, was a carpenter who was fatally electrocuted on the job when Tiara was almost 3. Her mother, Michelle Helm, supported five children cleaning houses and preparing IRS forms at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service.
Tiara had just turned 15 when a drunk driver hit her as she was walking home in October 2012. She had her first “grand mal” seizure about a year later. A doctor diagnosed epilepsy and thought the car accident was related, Michelle Helm said in court testimony.
During a seizure, Tiara’s body stiffens and her feet contort inward. She growls and spits. Her head thrashes and her eyes roll back. She sometimes bites her tongue or her lip.
“I feel like I’m suffocating,” she said. “I black out.”
Despite her seizures, her mom allowed Helm to do normal teenage things, like play varsity soccer. And attend one of the biggest concerts her little town had ever seen.
When Helm went back to school after the incident, her peers kept asking what happened. A false rumor spread that her seizure was drug-induced. She stopped going to school.
Their small town suddenly felt much smaller. Strangers approached mother and daughter at Walmart, offering their opinions on what happened that night.
Tiara Helm said she hated herself for quitting school and soccer. “I felt like everything I had going for me was out the window,” she said. She worked at Sonic and a drive-thru BBQ joint nearby Gadsden.
By summer 2015, around the time she and her mom filed their civil rights suit, Helm tried heroin and meth. Drugs made her feel something besides numb, she said.
She also started cutting herself. She found a razor blade in her best friend’s garage and carved the words “why me” inside her left forearm. The words, now a faded white scar, remain visible.
The lawsuit ground on. Defense lawyers asked a federal judge to decide the case without holding a trial. They argued the officers were protected under qualified immunity.
In March 2019, U.S. District Judge Annemarie Carney Axon, appointed by former President Donald Trump in 2018, ruled that a jury should decide Helm’s claims against the police. She noted that Helm wasn’t a flight risk or a threat to the officer who used a Taser on her “or, for that matter, to anyone else.”
The officers appealed, and the case dragged on for another two years. During this time, Helm said, she really spiraled down: “I was angry, so that pushed me to be ugly to my mom, ugly to my sisters, ugly to myself.”
Over a two-year span, police arrested Helm for possession of drug paraphernalia, marijuana and Suboxone, and for not giving police her full name during a traffic stop. In June 2020, outstanding warrants landed her in the Etowah County Detention Center. Six months later, she pleaded guilty in drug court to drug possession and obstruction of justice and enrolled in rehab.
While she was still in jail, lawyers for the officers went before a three-judge panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit and again argued for a dismissal based on qualified immunity.
The judges were dubious when a defense lawyer described police actions. “They are trying to get her to calm down and comply with orders from the officers to calm down,” said David Stubbs, the lawyer for four of the five officers.
Judge Barbara Lagoa cut him off: “The orders to stop having a grand mal seizure?”
Stubbs said the officers believed Helm was no longer having a seizure when she became combative.
“I don’t understand that argument,” said Judge Andrew Brasher. “I mean, I think I would be combative if I were being held down for no apparent reason by police officers and then being Tased.”
In March 2021, the appeals court ruled that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity. The decision paved the way for a trial.
It was a rare and hard-fought victory for Helm. “It made me feel good, like something was going to be done about it,” she recalled recently.
As the trial date approached, she’d been sober and drug-free for nearly a year, she said.
On a sunny October morning this year, Helm’s case finally landed before a jury. She arrived at the federal courthouse in Anniston, roughly 65 miles east of Birmingham. She’d just celebrated her 24th birthday.
She had waited almost seven years for this day.
Helm walked into the courtroom and sat next to her mom, just behind their lawyers. She wore blue dress pants with an ironed crease down the legs, a gray sweater and black leather shoes that she had picked out at the thrift store where she works loading and unloading donation trucks. The officers sat a few feet away at the defendant’s table.
Jury selection took just shy of two hours, with five men and three women selected to decide Helm’s case: three diesel mechanics, an electrician, a medical lab tech, and employees with Walmart, Honda and a mineral processing plant.
Judges determine which evidence jurors will be allowed to hear. In Helm’s case, Judge Axon agreed to bar jurors from hearing any testimony “relating to any performance evaluations, performance reviews, and/or past or subsequent disciplinary actions” involving the officers.
That meant jurors couldn’t hear that the officer who used the headlock on Helm, Justin Gilliland, was subsequently fired by the Rainbow City police department for “unbecoming” and “immoral” conduct, including sending pornographic images to colleagues. Jurors learned only that Gilliland was no longer a cop. He declined to talk to a reporter.
The judge did, however, allow lawyers for the officers to question Michelle Helm about three times she called police to her home in the year before the concert because of physical fights between Tiara and her sister, Danielle. Defense lawyers put other aspects of her parenting on trial, including her decision to let Tiara go to the concert despite having had a seizure at soccer practice that day.
Michelle also had to testify about how, when she tried to go to Tiara after getting a phone call about the seizures the night of the concert, police tackled her and used a Taser on her, causing her to urinate on herself just outside the lobby of the concert hall.
Afterwards, Michelle Helm told a reporter that she felt humiliated on the stand. She began to cry.
“You could feel what they thought about me as a mom,” she said.
The police “weren’t even decent to my child because they judged us, because they think we’re trash,” she said. “They broke her spirit that night, like breaking a horse.”
When the trial resumed, the officers took the stand. They testified that Tiara Helm began to fight them, cursing, spitting and kicking and trying to bite Gilliland. “She was being violent,” he testified.
Sgt. George Morris, the officer who used the Taser on Helm, described her as “an out of control young lady” and “very aggressive.”
Morris testified that he shocked Helm just once, not three times as she alleged. When presented with a photo of her chest showing four red marks, Morris testified that she must have bounced into the Taser while trying to get away from it.
Morris said that if his son, who went to high school with Helm, had acted as she did, he’d have allowed the boy to be shocked with Tasers to “straighten him out.”
As Morris testified, the other officers exchanged smiles and snickered.
There is no video of the Taser use, though Morris and at least three other officers there wore body cameras. Morris said he didn’t know why.
Body cam footage from after Morris used the Taser showed a paramedic binding Helm’s limp ankles with strips of cloth. There’s also video of her on a hospital gurney cursing and mouthing off at the officers, who are laughing.
Morris often had his eyes closed during testimony. Midway through the trial, he disappeared from the courtroom. He wasn’t there when Tiara Helm testified. His lawyer told the judge he had chest pain.
On the third morning of the trial, Helm’s turn to testify finally arrived. She took a moment to steel herself in the women’s bathroom of the courthouse, gripping both sides of the white porcelain sink, staring at her reflection in the mirror. She took a long shaky breath.
“I’m just — so nervous,” she said. “I don’t want them to attack me like they did my mom.”
On the stand, Helm walked through the incident, noting that she went in and out of consciousness as the seizures hit her. At one point, her sister Danielle “was caressing my hair and talking to someone else.” She passed out again. When she regained consciousness, she saw men holding her down.
“I couldn’t seem to make words out,” she said. “All I could do was cry.”
“No one would tell me what was going on,” she continued. “They just seemed really angry.”
The officers said Helm told them, “Tase me, motherfucker.” She insists that she did not.
She acknowledged that she spewed “offensive and foul language” at the officers.
“They were being ugly to me,” Helm testified, crying. “They were mocking me, making fun of me.” One said they should tape her mouth shut with duct tape, she said. “I felt very small, very humiliated, very insignificant,” she testified. “I felt like I was nothing.”
As she wiped tears from her eyes with a tissue, one juror slept. Judge Axon tried to wake him up by dropping something heavy. “I apologize. I can’t keep him awake,” the judge later said.
On day four of the trial, the jury heard closing arguments.
Gregory Harp, Helm’s lawyer, told jurors that Morris used the Taser thinking, “that foul-mouthed 17-year-old teenager got what she deserved because she wouldn’t behave.” The defense chose to “defend the indefensible” by attacking Michelle and Tiara Helm’s characters, he said.
The officers’ lawyers painted a picture of a chaotic, rapidly devolving incident. “Frankly, a dangerous situation,” one told the jurors, saying the officer using the headlock on Helm “did what any reasonable officer would do.”
The jury began deliberations around 3 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 21.
By 5:10 p.m., with no verdict reached, the judge dismissed jurors for the night. “They’re fighting for me,” Tiara Helm told a reporter.
The following morning, at 11:15 a.m., jurors reached a verdict. “Help us, Lord,” Michelle Helm whispered, eyes closed, hands clasped.
Jurors had selected Christine Cortez, a mechanic and single mom, as their foreperson. She entered the courtroom with an anguished expression; her eyes moist with tears. Harp turned around, leaned in close to Helm, and told her to “prepare for the worst.”
The jury sided with the police, not Helm.
The officers quickly shuffled out. Their lawyers declined to comment.
Cortez said later that she was the lone holdout in Helm’s favor. The other jurors “made it clear they weren’t comfortable destroying a life of an officer,” she said.
Harp, Helm’s lawyer, called it “a heartbreaking loss.” He estimated that his legal team spent thousands of hours preparing for the trial over nearly seven years. After all that, it largely came down to the jury, he said.
“If you’ve got that mindset in the prevailing public that police officers should not be held accountable, what do you do with that?” he asked. His suggestion: “It’s so easy to legislate that you should not Tase a restrained individual.”
When the verdict was read, Helm did not make a sound. She sat composed. She had already made a decision. No matter what happened, she wasn’t going to let them win.
“I just feel like after all this we’ve been through, it’s easy to fall into — not really a self-pity thing, but a ‘Damn, that sucks, that shouldn’t have happened to me,’ and dwell,” Helm said.
“I literally have to make a mental choice every day when it starts to arise in me, that I’m not going to be a victim anymore, that I’m a survivor, and I’m gonna always stand up for myself and stand up for what’s right — no matter what that jury said.”