The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a decision in yet another Anaheim police shooting case. A three-judge panel unanimously ordered a new civil trial yesterday in reviving the wrongful death lawsuit for Manuel Diaz, a 25-year-old unarmed man shot dead by Anaheim officer Nick Bennallack on July 21, 2012. The killing sparked unrest and riots in the city that summer. Circuit judges concluded that a federal jury heard inflammatory and irrelevant evidence when deciding against excessive force claims during the previous trial in 2014.
"I broke down in tears," says Genevieve Huizar, Manuel's mother, when she heard the news. "It's very emotional, and I'm just praying that Manuel's case is going to help other cases in the future."
Bennallack encountered Diaz talking with others by a parked car in an Anna Drive alley. Diaz took off running through the apartment complexes while the cop gave chase. Bennallack testified in the federal trial that Diaz looked back at him and began to turn around as if "ready to fire a gun." Bennallack shot twice without warning killing Diaz near an apartment gate.
The appellate court ruled that the trial should have been divided on the question of excessive force first and later followed by determining damages for Huizar if the officer had been found liable. "The district court abused its discretion in failing to do so," wrote Circuit Judge John B. Owens. "As a result, the jury was exposed to copious amounts of inflammatory and prejudicial evidence with little (if any) relevance."
Officer Bennallack never claimed to see Diaz with a gun, didn't recognize him as a known gang member, or thought him to be on drugs at the time. Despite that, District Court Judge James Selna allowed Anaheim attorneys to show photographs of Diaz's East Side Anaheim tattoos and cellphone pictures where he posed with a gun while throwing a gang sign up. A doctor called to testify speculated about how meth use might have impaired Diaz's judgement the day of the shooting.
The evidence surrounding gang affiliation and drug use also sought to undermine Huizar's claims for damages in relation to the loss of her son. "They sure tried to discredit me as mother," she says. 'It's the most hurtful, degrading thing, but a mother's love is so much stronger than all of that."
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The Ninth Circuit's ruling deemed the admittance of evidence regarding Diaz's gang membership to be "most troubling." But attorneys for Diaz's mother didn't get everything they wanted out of yesterday's ruling. The appeals court upheld Judge Selna's decision to put the question of excessive force before the jury saying both sides presented substantial evidence to back their arguments.
"We are disappointed with the decision and will continue to see the case through the legal process," says Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster. In the past two years, the Ninth Circuit has revived the wrongful death lawsuits of Caesar Cruz, Adolph Anthony Sanchez Guzman, and Bernie Villegas—all men killed by Anaheim cops. Villegas was also killed by officer Bennallack.
The Orange County District Attorney's office investigated the Diaz shooting and cleared Bennallack of any criminal wrongdoing in March 2013. The OCDA released photos retrieved from Diaz's cellphone at the time where he posed with a handgun, images that splashed across television news reports and later before jurors in the subsequent trial.
With the lawsuit revived, Huizar isn't looking for a negotiated settlement. "We plan to go back to court and fight it all the way," she says. "We have to make a stand for justice because they're still killing people."