The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that a wrongful death lawsuit of a man gunned down by Anaheim police should be decided by a jury. On December 11, 2009, five officers opened fire, killing 35-year-old Caesar Cruz in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski cited "curious and material factual discrepancies" in finding a lower court's dismissal of the civil suit in error.
"Honestly, I'm excited," says Theresa Smith, Cruz's mother. "For me, winning the reversal shows that the whole system, from the police, to the Orange County District Attorney, to the lower court, did something wrong."
On that fateful December day, an unnamed informant tipped off Anaheim policeman Nathan Stauber that Cruz was a drug dealing gang member driving with a gun. Officers followed his SUV and attempted to pull him over for a broken tail light. Cruz turned into the Wal-Mart parking lot. Police surrounded him. Cruz reversed, stopped and attempted to exit his vehicle.
When Cruz opened the SUV's door, officers, with their weapons drawn, ordered him to the ground. Four of the five cops who opened fire claimed the man reached for his waistband. A hailstorm of 20 bullets from police guns rang out in 2-3 seconds. After the shooting, officers found Cruz unarmed and entangled in his seat belt. A loaded 9mm was later recovered from the passenger seat.
Cruz was not on parole nor a documented gang member. An OCDA investigation into the incident cleared officers Stauber, Kelly Phillips, Michael Brown, Bruce Linn and Phillip Vargas in the shooting a year later. In 2011, Linn shot and killed David Raya in Anaheim claiming the unarmed man reached for his back waistband, a coincidence not lost on the appeals court. The civil case for Raya's death was settled for $245,000 earlier this year.
"Nobody likes a game of 'he said, she said,' but far worse is the game of 'we said, he's dead,'" Judge Kozinski, a Ronald Reagan appointee, wrote. "Sadly this is too often what we face in police shooting cases like this one."
The panel of judges found fault with U.S. District Judge Margaret M. Morrow, a Bill Clinton appointee, dismissing the civil suit on the grounds of officer testimony. "To decide this case a jury would have to answer just one simple question: Did the police see Cruz reach for his waistband? If they did, they were entitled to shoot," the opinion reads. "If they didn't, they weren't."
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The federal court noted the fact that Cruz didn't have a gun to reach for in his waistband in the first place. Weighing the circumstantial evidence and credibility of police accounts is something the panel of judges say is best left to a jury.
"It's very difficult to get the justice that we want," Smith says. "It's taken me almost five years to get this point. I'm not going to stop fighting for justice, not only for my son, but for all other families who have lost loved ones to police brutality."
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2