A Fresno lawyer said Thursday that he can't believe a federal civil jury rejected his clients' claims that they were roughed up by three law enforcement officers at Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Madera County.
Especially since there is video evidence that attorney Stephen Cornwell insisted supports his clients' claims of excessive force and false arrest.
"It's the weirdest thing," Cornwell said of Wednesday's verdict in U.S. District Court in Fresno.
Cornwell represented Jose Lorenzo; his brother, Alfredo Lorenzo; Jose's daughter, Gretel Lorenzo, and her partner, Melinda Avila, in the civil rights trial that accused Madera County Sheriff's Sgt. Guy Rich, Deputy Richard Gonzales and Paul Varner of the California Highway Patrol of roughing them up outside the casino in June 2013.
Avila suffered a broken hip during the incident.
On Wednesday, after less than five hours of deliberations, an all-female jury unanimously rejected the accusations against the three law enforcement officers, finding that the plaintiffs were not entitled to any damages. Cornwell had asked jurors to award at least $1 million for emotional distress and to help Avila who allegedly lost her job due to her injury.
The defendants were represented by attorney Catherine Woodbridge of the Attorney General's Office and lawyers Carolyn Frank and Sean DeBurgh of Roseville. During the trial, they contended that officers had a right to arrest Jose Lorenzo because he was drunk in public. His brother and daughter were arrested for interfering with law enforcement.
Cornwell, however, said the Lorenzos were neither drunk nor interfering. The Madera County District Attorney's Office never filed charges against them, he said.
Cornwell gave this account:
On June 1, 2013, Jose Lorenzo, then 62 years old, hired a limousine to take his party to the casino. But after a night of gambling and drinking, something terrible happened: a drunk groped 41-year-old Gretel Lorenzo, leading to a verbal altercation. Security guards stepped in and told both sides to either get a room or leave.
The Lorenzos and Avila decided to leave. But while waiting for a limo — and unbeknownst to them — security had called the Madera County Sheriff's Department, which dispatched Rich and Gonzales. Varner arrived as backup.
Within minutes, Rich and Gonzales confronted the Lorenzos and Avila. Because Rich and Gonzales were wearing uniforms similar to what casino security guards wear, Jose Lorenzo didn't want to talk to them, Cornwell said.
In the video, Jose Lorenzo can be heard telling his brother and daughter and Avila that they don't have to talk to the officers. When Rich and Gonzales insist on asking them questions, Jose Lorenzo tells them: "Call the police."
"We are the police," one of them responded before they started handcuffing Jose Lorenzo.
The video shows 50-year-old Alfredo Lorenzo saying, "Hey guys, guys, what are you doing?" as he is apprehended and taken to the ground face first. When Gretel Lorenzo intervenes, she is shoved into Avila, who falls and breaks her hip, Cornwell said.
The confrontation took place about 1:45 a.m. June 2, 2013.
In defense of law enforcement, Woodbridge told the jury that Jose Lorenzo was clearly drunk and a threat to public safety. Woodbridge said Jose Lorenzo initiated the confrontation by not answering the law enforcement questions as to whether they had a a safe ride home.
Woodbridge said Alfredo Lorenzo then interfered in his brother's arrest. Gretel Lorenzo was "pushed" because she endangered the safety of Gonzales and Varner when she "reached in" to help her uncle.
On Thursday, Cornwell said Gretel was the victim of being groped in the casino bar, so she and her father and uncle and Avila had committed no crime. Though they drank beer at the casino, "they were not falling-down drunk" or a threat to anyone, he said.
"They were peacefully waiting for a limo when the deputies began interrogating them," Cornwell said. "The law says they don't have to answer questions by police, but I guess they got mad when Jose told them to call the police."