A maintenance man who witnessed the fatal shooting of Veronica Canter by two Fresno police officers two years ago testified Thursday in a federal civil rights trial that she held two knives, but did not pose a threat to the officers before she was shot five times.
Martin Stevens’ testimony contradicts the accounts of Officers Douglas Cox and Edward Louchren, who have testified that Louchren fatally shot Canter after she got onto a living room couch and was about to lunge toward Cox and stab him.
Stevens also told the jury that attorney Bruce Praet, who is defending the city of Fresno and the two officers, had called him Wednesday night and told him that he didn’t need to come to court to testify.
In addition, Stevens testified that after the shooting he talked to a detective for about five minutes. Because he was shaken by the fatal shooting, he was told to go to the Fresno Police Department the next day, he told the jury. But when he showed up at police headquarters, officers took him to a room but then told him that they didn’t need his account.
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On cross-examination, Praet did not refute his phone call to Stevens or Stevens’ account of the police investigation.
On the third day of the trial, Magistrate Judge Erica P. Grosjean rejected Praet’s motion to dismiss all or part of the lawsuit. Afterward, lawyers for both sides wrapped up evidence in the trial that included testimony from Stevens and Canter’s ex-boyfriend, Dag Lindbeck, who also told the jury that officers didn’t need to shoot Canter, and from a Fresno police officer who took Canter to a psychiatric ward 20 days before she was killed.
Officer Steven Craig testified that he found Canter lying in the street and dressed just in her bra and underwear. He said Canter was yelling phases like “I hate the government, the government doesn’t care about me, and she wanted to get run (over) by a car.” Craig said he didn’t think Canter was mentally ill, but he put a 72-hour psychiatric hold on her because she was a danger to herself.
On Friday, the jury of five men and three women will begin deliberations after lawyers conclude closing arguments.
Canter, 48, was fatally shot shortly before 4 p.m. on March 7, 2014, after she locked her ex-boyfriend out of his apartment near Bulldog Stadium.
Cox and Louchren have testified that Louchren had to shoot Canter because she stood on top of a couch and was about to attack Cox with two large kitchen knives. When the first two shots didn’t stop her, Louchren testified Wednesday, he fired three more rounds because “she was going to kill Doug.”
Louchren, an 18-year veteran of the Fresno Police Department, and Cox, a 30-year veteran, have described the incident as a typical boyfriend-girlfriend disturbance involving misdemeanor trespassing that suddenly turned deadly.
A key issue in the trial is whether the two officers knew Canter was mentally ill. The officers have testified that they didn’t suspect Canter to have mental illness. Lawyers for Canter’s family, however, contend she was mentally ill and that the two officers didn’t follow proper procedure when they kicked open the door, used a stun gun on her and then fatally shot her.
Arturo González, one of the family’s attorneys, has told the jury that any reasonable officer would have known Canter was mentally ill. Dispatch had informed the officers that Canter had “mental issues.” He said Lindbeck also had told Cox that Canter was “acting crazy and stupid.”
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer and other police officials were in the courtroom Thursday to hear the judge reject the city’s motion to dismiss. In her ruling, Grosjean said the family’s lawyers had put on enough evidence to support their claims the city of Fresno and the two officers had violated Canter’s civil rights to be free of excessive force. The family also is suing for wrongful death, contending the officers were negligent.
Stevens began his testimony by telling jurors that he tried to help the officers get into Lindbeck’s apartment with a master key. But the key didn’t work because Lindbeck had changed locks.
He said he could hear Canter yelling inside the apartment, but “I couldn’t understand what she was saying.”
Once Louchren kicked in the door, he immediately pulled out his firearm, Stevens testified. Canter then went into the kitchen and returned with two knives. He said Canter cursed the officers while striking the blades of the two knives together.
Stevens said he heard Louchren order Canter to drop the knives. When she didn’t, Cox used his stun gun on her, Stevens said. “It did not seem to faze her,” he said. “She didn’t stop moving or stuttering or mumbling.”
Still holding the knives, Canter then lifted her right foot onto the couch, Stevens said. He testified Louchren shot Canter twice as she lifted her other foot onto the couch.
Canter wasn’t a threat, Stevens told the jury, because the moment she was shot, “she buckled and went down.” He said Louchren’s next three shots caused her to fall to the ground.
Louchren also has told the jury that Canter held the knives over her head “like bull horns” and said he shot Canter as she stood near the middle of the couch and was about to lunge toward Cox. But Stevens said Louchren’s account was wrong because Canter “never planted her left foot on the couch.” He also testified that Canter never held the knives over her head; she kept them near her chest, less than a foot from her body.
Lindbeck testified that he had known Canter for 12 years and that she came to his apartment unannounced March 5, 2014.
Everything was fine the first two nights. But on March 7, Canter started acting strange, he said. She started trying on different clothes and different makeup. She then went outside and started harassing some kids in the courtyard. He said the apartment manager told him to get control of her or she had to go.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he told the jury. “I was worried about her. But I’m not trained to evaluate anyone’s mental health.”
When Lindbeck put Canter’s belongings outside, she locked him out. Lindbeck said he tried to get into his apartment through a window and a sliding glass door, but Canter had locked them. He said he got flustered when she let his pet birds fly out of the apartment.
Lindbeck testified he told Cox that Canter was “acting crazy.” But he didn’t tell Cox or Louchren that Canter had put an electrical cord around her neck and said: “There’s going to be a suicide.” He also testified that he didn’t tell the officers that Canter was in a psychiatric ward 20 days earlier and that she was once institutionalized. The reason he didn’t say anything is because the officers never asked him, he testified. But he did tell police dispatch that Canter had mental issues.
Louchren and Cox have testified that Lindbeck wanted to press trespassing charges against Canter. But Lindbeck said: “I might have. I don’t recall. I mean, I don’t think so. I just wanted her out.”
He said he was standing by the sliding glass door when Louchren kicked the door in. When Canter came out of the kitchen holding knives, he recalled Louchren ordering Canter to drop them, but she didn’t.
Lindbeck told the jury that he knew something bad was going to happen, so “I turned around. I didn’t want to see what happened.” He then heard five gunshots in a row.
Lindbeck said Canter never threatened him or the officers. “She was standing eight to 10 feet from the officers and was not moving forward,” he said. “She had stopped.”
He also told the jury that if he knew the officers were going to confront Canter with a stun gun and a gun, “I would have told them to hold on.”
“You don’t need weapons,” he testified. “There’s two of them and she weighs about 120 pounds.”