The city of Fresno has paid $1.72 million to the parents of a 23-year-old Fresno man who was shot to death by police nine years ago.
San Francisco attorney Walter "Skip" Walker III, who represents the parents of police shooting victim Stephen Willis, said on Monday that the city has paid Willis' parents and his legal team a total of $1,728,776.82 to end a nine-year legal battle.
The total includes the $302,044 that a federal jury awarded to Willis' parents in December 2013 and $25,001 in court-ordered damages to the family. The rest of the money is for attorneys fees and court costs.
The payment comes on the heels of a ruling by federal Magistrate Judge Barbara McAuliffe on Feb. 27 that ordered the city to pay its bill.
Prior to the ruling, Walker said in an email that the city never tried to settle the case.
On Monday, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer referred questions to the City Attorney's Office since it was involved in the trial, appeal and negotiations with Willis' lawyers. "From my perspective, I am glad this case has finally been resolved after nine years," Dyer said.
The City Attorney's Office has not yet commented.
The killing of Willis has been high-profile ever since his parents Chris and Mary Willis contended at a news conference that police executed their son shortly after midnight on March 28, 2009, at the Stoney Brook apartment complex at Balch and Winery avenues. Police said he pointed a gun at officers Greg Catton and Daniel Astacio and fired one round at them. His parents said their son was just taking his holstered gun from his car to his apartment after a day of target practice.
In December 2013, a federal jury ruled that Astacio committed no wrongdoing, but found Catton had used excessive force and his negligence caused Willis' wrongful death. In U.S. District Court, the jury awarded $1.51 million in damages to Willis' parents, but ruled that Stephen Willis was 80 percent responsible for his death, so his parents were actually awarded only $302,044.
Because Willis' parents prevailed in the trial, McAuliffe in July 2014 awarded their lawyers $717,642 in attorneys fees, plus $106,852 in court cost. In making her ruling, McAuliffe said Willis' legal team of Walker , Beau Burbidge and Peter Koenig of San Francisco accomplished a public good, since the Ninth Circuit has consistently held that in excessive-force cases, these verdicts benefit society as a whole because they "constitute a warning to law-enforcement officers not to treat civilians unconstitutionally."
But since McAuliffe's July 2014 ruling, the city has tried to get the jury verdict dismissed. Its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was unsuccessful, which in the end cost the city — and taxpayers — more money in attorneys fees.
Court records say Catton and Astacio fired 41 rounds at Willis. An autopsy report showed Willis was shot 14 times, including several times in his back. The other bullets struck cars, apartments and fences.
After a police investigation, Catton and Astacio were cleared of any wrongdoing; the Fresno County District Attorney's Office never filed criminal charges against either officer.
During the 2013 trial, the city's lawyers argued that the two officers shouldn't be held liable because they feared for their lives. They also said Willis — a Buchanan High School graduate who was studying at ITT Technical Institute — caused his own death by having a 0.29 blood-alcohol level, or nearly four times the legal limit to drive, and pointing a gun at the officers.
But Willis' attorneys said Willis never fired his revolver and argued that the two officers were actually shooting at each other. They also said Astacio and Catton didn't know Willis was drunk and gave conflicting accounts about why they used deadly force. In addition, the lawyers argued, Willis did not pose a threat to the officers because he was merely taking the revolver, which he used earlier in the day at a target range, from the trunk of his car and into his apartment for safekeeping.
The city appealed McAuliffe's ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. But in March 2017, the Ninth 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, "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," the Ninth Circuit ruling said. The Ninth Circuit also said the Willis family could seek damages for their son's "pre-death pain and suffering," caused by Catton's final shot or shots.
In October 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Fresno's petition to throw out the verdict, leading the city to pay Willis' family and lawyers.