A federal court jury on Tuesday cleared two Tulare police officers in the shooting death of an unarmed man who allegedly tried to grab the gun from the holster of one of the officers as they wrestled on the ground.
Anita Deporto, the mother of Samuel Gonzales, the man who died, sued officers Vince Medina and Ryan Richmond, as well as the city of Tulare, in U.S. District Court in Fresno over the January 2013 incident.
After a day of deliberation in U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill’s court, jurors were deadlocked on a unanimous verdict, but the stalemate was broken after both sides in the case agreed to an alternative.
Usually in federal civil trials, a jury numbering at least six must be unanimous in its verdict. Often, however, the court empanels more than the required six jurors in the event one or two must be dismissed during the trial. In this case, both sides waived the unanimity requirement, instead allowing a supermajority of 6 of the 8 jurors to decide. They found in favor of the officers in a 6-2 split vote.
The incident happened after Medina and Richmond had come across Gonzales while investigating a call from the La Palma Bakery in downtown Tulare that gang members were loitering outside the store. The officers had gone to a nearby abandoned house where they knew gang members sometimes congregated. When the two began investigating the house, Gonzales ran out. Richmond wrestled with Gonzales, and both officers used their department-issued flashlights to hit Gonzales in an attempt to subdue him.
Richmond and Gonzales fell to the ground and were entangled. The altercation ended when Medina fired two shots into Gonzales.
At issue in the trial was whether the two officers acted properly. Did Medina fire the lethal shots only after Richmond said Gonzales, high on methamphetamine and fearing a return to prison, was trying to grab his gun? Or did the two officers overreact, using their flashlights against the unarmed 44-year-old and then shooting him without warning, bypassing less lethal options such as a Taser or pepper spray?
In the trial, it was clear the two sides saw the incident in starkly different terms.
The legal team representing Deporto told jurors Gonzales didn’t make the smartest decisions that day by trying to flee officers, but he didn’t deserve to die. At no time, the team said, were the lives of the officers in imminent danger.
But the attorney representing Tulare and its officers said Gonzales ignored commands to stop resisting before trying to grab Richmond’s gun, which was holstered. He said Gonzales was a Norteño gang member who had spent 18 of the past 25 years in prison, and was wanted for a felony parole violation. He didn’t want to go back to prison.