The city of Fresno won big Friday in pretrial motions in the upcoming federal civil rights trial of two police officers who are accused of fatally shooting a mentally ill woman two years ago who was allegedly armed with two knives.
Magistrate Judge Erica P. Grosjean ruled in U.S. District Court in Fresno that the lawyers for Veronica Lynn Canter first have to prove the two officers were negligent in shooting her before they can show evidence that police Chief Jerry Dyer allows his officers to fire at people without fear of punishment. (Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Ms. Canter’s first name as Victoria.)
Grosjean also sanctioned San Francisco lawyer Arturo Gonzalez, one of the lawyers representing Canter, for violating a court order by allowing his expert, retired Los Angeles sheriff’s Lt. Roger Clark, to review confidential Fresno police information that was supposed to be destroyed.
Clark used confidential information to write a report for the June 14 trial that says at least 22 Fresno police shootings were unjustified. His reports contradict Dyer’s contention that all police shootings have been justified and within policy.
In 2011, Gonzalez used that information to win a $1.3 million settlement from the city in a high-profile police killing of Steven Vargas, who was unarmed but high on drugs when a police sergeant shot him inside his sport-utility vehicle Oct. 27, 2009. In winning the case, Gonzalez showed the federal jury a pattern of Fresno police shootings from 2005 to 2010 that he contended were unlawful and unjustified. The jury ruled in his favor and found the city liable.
Gonzalez wanted to use the information again in the upcoming trial. But Santa Ana lawyer Bruce Praet, who represents the city, said the protective order required Gonzalez to destroy the documents once the 2011 trial was over. In addition, if Gonzalez is allowed to bring up past officer-involved shootings, it would prejudice the jury against the Fresno Police Department, Praet argued.
I don’t see this as a little deal. I think it is a big deal.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Erica P. Grosjean
Grosjean said that by clear and convincing evidence, Gonzalez violated the court order. “I don’t see this as a little deal. I think it is a big deal,” Grosjean said, while telling Gonzalez that he could easily have obtained the information legally. She then ordered him not use any of the confidential findings regarding police shooting in the years leading up to the Vargas verdict. But Gonzalez can still use confidential police documents that he legally obtained about police shootings that happened after the Vargas verdict, the judge said.
In addition, Grosjean told Gonzalez that he cannot mention the Vargas verdict and $1.3 settlement in the upcoming trial because it would prejudice the jury against the police and the city.
The city didn’t leave Friday’s hearing unscathed.
Grosjean denied Praet’s motion to exclude Canter’s mental condition that included her “5150” hold by police for lying in the street wearing only her underwear and bra. That incident happened about 20 days before she was shot by police.
The judge also denied Praet’s motion to show a computer-animation video that re-created the killing of Canter as viewed by the two officers. Canter’s lawyers said the video was not factually accurate. Grosjean ruled the video was prejudicial.
The rest of the evidence is still overwhelming.
San Francisco attorney Arturo Gonzalez
Afterward, Gonzalez said the rulings don’t hurt his case. “The rest of the evidence is still overwhelming,” he said.
Court records say Canter’s ex-boyfriend had called 911 to report she had locked him out of his apartment. Police say Canter was acting strangely, talking to herself and dancing outside the apartment before police arrived. When the apartment manager complained, the ex-boyfriend went outside to persuade her to come inside. Once inside, she locked him out.
“He could see through the sliding patio door that she continued to act strangely, dancing around, wearing a basketball net as a skirt and yelling incoherently,” court records say.
Within five minutes of arriving, Officers Douglas Cox and Edward Louchren had kicked open the door, used a stun gun on Canter and then fatally shot her, court records say.
Dyer told news reporters that when officers entered the apartment, Canter came out of the kitchen and threatened them with an 8-inch carving knife. But in court documents, the city’s defense attorney says two knives were found near her body in the apartment. Dyer said officers ordered her to drop the knife, but she refused. But Gonzalez said if Canter had a knife, she was alone and scared, and reacting to “two men with guns bursting in” the apartment.