A federal civil jury in San Francisco today exonerated four police officers who fatally shot a 28-year-old man in a city park in 2014.
An eight-member jury unanimously ruled the officers did not use unconstitutional excessive force when they fired as many as 59 gunshots at Alejandro “Alex” Nieto in 30 seconds in Bernal Heights Park on March 21, 2014.
The verdict came on the eighth day of trial in the court of U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins on a civil rights lawsuit filed against the officers in 2014 by Nieto’s parents, Elvira and Refugio Nieto.
The jurors began deliberating Wednesday afternoon and reached their verdict at midday today.
Nieto was preparing to go to his job as a security guard at a nightclub and was carrying a Taser stun gun on that evening in 2014 when the officers encountered him walking down an access road. The officers were responding to a dog walker’s 911 call of a man with a gun.
They testified that Nieto pointed the device directly at them and that they believed it was a real gun and their lives were in danger. They said they kept shooting even after Nieto moved or fell to the ground because he continued to aim at them.
A musician, Antonio Theodore, who was at the park and who was brought to the stand by lawyers for the Nietos, gave a conflicting account. He testified that Nieto was walking calmly and kept his hands in his pockets.
After the verdict, family members left the courtroom in tears and made no comments before being driven away from the Federal Building courthouse.
Outside the courthouse, family friend Oscar Salinas said the family was “devastated.”
Salinas and Ely Flores, a friend of Nieto for eight years, said supporters were greatly disappointed but still considered it a victory of sorts that the case had come to trial after two years and that the evidence had been made public.
“It was tragic,” Flores said of his fiend’s death. “I’m sad (about the verdict) but happy we took this to federal court.”
The parents’ lawyer, Adante Pointer, said no decision has been made on whether to appeal.
“We’re considering all our legal options. Everything’s on the table,” he said.
Pointer said of the verdict, “You have essentially a green light to fire 59 bullets in a residential and public park that ends up with a man being dead.”
The four officers were Lt. Jason Sawyer, who was a sergeant at the time, and Officers Richard Schiff, Nathan Chew and Roger Morse. Sawyer and Schiff were the first to arrive at the park and Chew and Morse arrived as backup. All four fired shots during the 30 seconds.
Their chief defense lawyer, Deputy City Attorney Margaret Baumgartner, said after the verdict, “This jury found they acted appropriately.”
She said the case was not about the San Francisco Police Department in general, but rather about “particular events by these particular officers.”
The department has been hit in recent months with allegations of corruption, racist text messages and allegedly unjustifed police shootings.
Baumgartner said she believed some of the most important evidence in the trial was the internal clock of Nieto’s Taser. A Taser expert testified that the clock showed the Taser was fired three times while the officers were shooting at Nieto.
In reaching that conclusion, the expert said he calculated the Taser’s clock had incurred “time drift” that caused it to run about four and one-half minutes slow.
The corrected clock “proves absolutely that Mr. Nieto pulled that trigger when directly in front of the officers,” Baumgartner said.
Three of the four officers testified they saw a red laser sight on Nieto’s device and believed it was a sight on a real gun.
Pointer argued to the jury that the time-drift calculation was unscientific and that the time originally shown on the clock was correct, thus indicating the device was not fired during the encounter with the officers.
Another point of contention in the trial was what the officers and Nieto said before the shooting.
Sawyer and Schiff both testified that they shouted, “Show your hands” at Nieto from about 30 yards away and that he then said, “No, show me your hands” and pointed his weapon at them.
Theodore testified that he heard the officers shout only “Stop” and did not hear any response from Nieto.
Pointer told the jury at the start of the trial that Schiff, a recent recruit who had been on the police force for about two months, fired 23 shots, Sawyer fired 20, Morse fired 11 and Chew fired 5.
Baumgartner said it was not proved there were 59 shots, but did not give a number. Other evidence showed that 48 bullet casings were found at the scene.
Autopsy evidence showed that Nieto was hit by at least 10 bullets and that the shots caused up to 15 wounds.
The Nietos’ lawsuit contained two claims of violations of the U.S Constitution: a claim of excessive force and a claim of deprivation of the parents’ right to a familial relationship with their son.
The second claim was dependent on the first and jurors were instructed not to consider it if they ruled against the family on the claim of excessive force. The lawsuit had asked for an unspecified amount of financial compensation.
In a separate criminal investigation, District Attorney George Cascon announced last year that no criminal charges would be filed against the officers. He said he concluded the officers acted lawfully in self-defense when Nieto pointed a weapon they believed to be a gun at them.
People protesting the shooting have held rallies and marches in the city over the past two years.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News