Federal appellate judges have a message for the Anaheim Police Department, whose officers probably believed the books had officially closed on a September 2009 killing of an unarmed 21-year-old Latino: Not so fast.
A judge had refused to let a jury consider the excessive-force and wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Adolph Anthony Sanchez Gonzalez's surviving family members, and later, a divided Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel essentially agreed there was nothing suspicious about the lethal police action.
But the rulings troubled other Ninth Circuit judges, who've reopened the case after the National Police Accountability Project (NPAP) asserted that prior judges on the case had ignored "glaring inconsistencies in the story told by the police officers."
"The decedent cannot give his side of the story," said NPAP attorney John Burton of Pasadena. "The officers' testimony concerning the timing of events, the speed of the van and the distance traveled--the equation on which their justification for terminating this man's life depends--cannot be reconciled."
In May, two of the three members of the Ninth Circuit panel--Diarmuid F. O'Scannlian and Stephen S. Trott--opined that the dead man had been acting strange and raised legitimate fears in veteran officers Daron Wyatt and Matthew Ellis, who have a right to defend themselves from threats.
But Judge Richard R. Clifton, who filed a dissent, said evidence that contradicted the police version of events might lead a future jury to believe the official Anaheim PD story "was not believable."
Wyatt and Ellis initiated an early-morning traffic stop on Gonzalez after the man bought fuel at a gas station. The officers claim the driver refused to obey commands and attempted to put something in his mouth from a plastic baggie. Ellis put Gonzalez in a sleeper hold, and Wyatt entered the vehicle from the passenger side and began punching the man in face and head. Ellis then slugged the man in the back of the head three times with his flashlight.
Lawyers for Gonzalez's family say that at this point, the victim rightfully tried to escape the alleged excessive force by putting the car in gear and trying to flee to safety.
Lawyers for the officers claim Wyatt, who remained inside the moving vehicle, was justified in pulling his weapon and shooting Gonzalez in the head.
"Officer Wyatt had to make a split-second decision as the decedent continued to accelerate the minivan rapidly down the street," Anaheim PD lawyers told the court. "The undisputed evidence shows that Officer Wyatt shot Gonzalez in self-defense."
Gonzalez family lawyers claim evidence shows the van was moving at 3.4 mph when Wyatt drew his gun and, "without any warning," fired it 6 inches from the victim's head.
"During the 10 seconds that the van was moving, Officer Wyatt could see the driver's hands, and Wyatt never saw anything in the driver's hands that looked like a gun," the plaintiff's lawyers wrote in a court brief. "Wyatt never saw what appeared to be a gun on the driver's person. Wyatt never saw anything sticking out of the driver's pockets or protruding from his waistband that Wyatt thought maybe a gun. The driver never reached for Wyatt's gun and never attempted to punch, hit or kick Wyatt. . . . At the time he shot the driver in the head, Wyatt was inside the van, sitting in the passenger seat, and was not being run over by the van."
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Even given that factual scenario, Anaheim PD maintains Wyatt--who is considered in law-enforcement circles as one of the county's best cops--was justified in employing lethal force because after ordering Gonzalez to stop, the officer had been "trapped inside the van, which was capable of inflicting serious bodily injury or death by crashing."
The Ninth Circuit will most likely announce a final decision next year about whether the plaintiffs can take their claims of excessive police force to a future jury.