The city of Madera will pay $775,000 to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by a family whose son was fatally shot 11 years ago by a police officer who grabbed her firearm instead of a Taser stun gun.
The settlement was reached Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Fresno as lawyers prepared for jury selection.
The trial would have focused on the actions of Madera police officer Marcy Noriega, who accidentally killed 24-year-old Everardo Torres as he sat handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. The jury would have had to decide whether Noriega's mistake involved an unreasonable use of force.
Attorney Bruce Praet, a former police officer who specializes in defending law enforcement in cases of alleged misconduct, said it was a fair settlement because Noriega admitted her mistake from the start.
"It's a tragic accident," Praet said. "He shouldn't have died."
Thomas Brill, who represented Torres' family, also said it was a fair settlement and the family received "some justice" when law enforcement officials in Madera and elsewhere made changes aimed at preventing accidental shootings.
Before Torres' death, many law enforcement officers throughout the nation were trained to holster their Taser near their handgun "on their dominant side" to reinforce "their muscle memory," Praet said.
Back then, "no one foresaw a weapon confusion issue," he said.
After Torres' death, law enforcement officials nationwide re-examined their Taser training. They learned that there were similar accidental shootings in Sacramento and Rochester, Minn., Praet said.
Today, law enforcement officials are trained to holster their Tasers on the opposite side of the handgun, he said.
Brill said Taser also changed the design of its stun gun. The Taser that Noriega reached for was similar to a Glock handgun, Brill said. After the shooting, Taser changed the design so it didn't resemble a gun, he said.
Noriega confronted Torres on Oct. 27, 2002, when police were dispatched to quell a loud party at the Madera Villa Apartments on North Schnoor Avenue west of Highway 99. At the party, an intoxicated Torres was arrested on suspicion of resisting police and battery on a peace officer.
Inside the patrol car, Torres was combative, cursing and kicking the doors and windows, Praet said. Noriega warned him to stop, and when he didn't, she tried to use a Taser stun gun on him. Instead, she mistakenly drew her Glock handgun and fired one shot at Torres, killing him.
"Oh, my God, I shot him," Noriega said, "who broke into tears," according to Praet.
The Madera County District Attorney's Office investigated the shooting and decided in 2003 not to file criminal charges against Noriega.
Torres' family, however, sued Noriega and the city of Madera, claiming Noriega violated Torres' civil rights. The family was first represented by attorney Johnnie Cochran, who rose to fame for his defense during O.J. Simpson's 1995 murder trial, before Brill took over the case.
A federal judge in Fresno twice denied the family's allegation and dismissed the case. But both times the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to the Fresno judge for reconsideration.
In August 2011, the Ninth Circuit court ruled that a jury should decide whether Noriega's mistake was reasonable.
Noriega still works as a Madera police officer. "She probably thinks of this case often," Praet said.
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