A federal appellate court on Wednesday rejected the city of Fresno’s contention that the 2009 police shooting death of 23-year-old Stephen Willis was justified.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a federal jury in Fresno reasonably concluded in December 2013 that a former police officer had used excessive force when Willis was killed outside his southeast Fresno apartment. Willis was shot 14 times, including several times in the back, an autopsy revealed.
The ruling means Fresno could be on the hook for more than the $1.1 million the city has already been ordered to pay to Willis’ family and their lawyers, Walter Walker III and Peter Koenig of San Francisco.
In December 2013, the jury found that former police officer Greg Catton used excessive force and his negligence caused Willis’ wrongful death. The jury awarded $1.51 million in damages to Willis’ parents, Chris and Liz Willis. But jurors also ruled that Willis contributed to his own death, so his family was awarded only $302,000 in damages.
Because the Willis family prevailed in U.S. District Court, Magistrate Judge Barbara A. McAuliffe in July 2014 awarded Walker and Koenig $717,642 in attorneys fees, plus $106,852 in court costs.
Paying the lawyers is appropriate on another legal ground – the Willis case accomplished a public goal, McAuliffe said at the time, noting that the 9th Circuit has consistently held that in excessive-force cases, a plaintiff’s verdict benefits society as a whole because they “constitute a warning to law-enforcement officers not to treat civilians unconstitutionally.”
Walker and Koenig had sought $1.7 million in attorney fees and nearly $200,000 in court costs. Walker said Wednesday that the 9th Circuit ruling now gives him and Koenig the opportunity to seek the higher amount in attorney fees. The ruling also says the Willis family can seek additional damages for their son’s pain and suffering right before he was fatally shot outside his home in southeast Fresno, Walker said.
Given the evidence presented at trial, a reasonable jury could conclude that officer Catton used excessive force in firing the final shot or shots
The 9th Circuit ruling
On Wednesday, the City Attorney’s Office said it does not discuss pending litigation.
The Willis family sued the Fresno Police Department in the summer of 2009 after police shot their son, a Buchanan High School graduate, as he took his revolver, which he used earlier in the day at a target range, from the trunk of his car so he could take it into his apartment for safekeeping. Police contended Willis initiated the deadly confrontation when he pointed a gun at officers Catton and Daniel Astacio and fired one round at them shortly after midnight on March 28, 2009, at the Stoney Brook complex at Balch and Winery avenues.
Catton and Astacio fired 41 rounds at Willis. Many of their bullets struck cars, apartments and fences. After a police investigation, Catton and Astacio were cleared of any wrongdoing.
In July 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill dismissed the parents’ lawsuit, saying Catton and Astacio used reasonable force. But the 9th Circuit overturned O’Neill’s decision and ordered the two officers to stand trial. The 9th Circuit said there were several disputed facts, including whether the officers identified themselves to Willis and whether Willis pulled his gun out of its holster before police shot him.
Those issues played out during a two-week trial in McAuliffe’s courtroom in late 2014. Fresno attorney James Weakley, who defended Astacio and Catton, told the jury that the city shouldn’t be held liable because the officers feared for their lives and that Willis caused his own death by having a 0.29 blood-alcohol level, or nearly four times the legal limit to drive. Weakley also said Willis shot at the two officers. He said the two officers had to make a split-second decision to shoot Willis “to stop the threat.”
Police fatally shot Willis outside his apartment at the Stoney Brook complex at Balch and Winery avenues in southeast Fresno on March 28, 2009.
But Willis’ attorneys said Astacio and Catton gave conflicting accounts about why they used deadly force. The attorneys also contended that Willis never fired his revolver, and the two officers were shooting at each other.
In its ruling, the jury found Astacio committed no wrongdoing and that neither Catton nor Astacio killed Willis out of malice, oppression or reckless disregard. The jury also found that Willis was 80 percent responsible for his death.
On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit said: “Given the evidence presented at trial, a reasonable jury could conclude that officer Catton used excessive force in firing the final shot or shots.” Because the jury found Catton had used excessive force, the 9th Circuit said, “it must have concluded that Willis was not reaching for (his) gun and and thus did not pose an immediate threat of harm when Officer Catton fired.”
Because the 9th Circuit said the Willis family can seek damages for their son’s “pre-death pain and suffering” caused by Catton’s final shot or shots, the case will return to McAuliffe’s courtroom, where a new jury will hear evidence about Willis’ death, Walker said.