Fresno police shooting trial settles for less than expected, and no wrongdoing admitted

Martin Figueroa, 26, who was fatally shot by Fresno police on Tuesday, May 20, 2014, after he threatened them with a steak knife.
Martin Figueroa, 26, who was fatally shot by Fresno police on Tuesday, May 20, 2014, after he threatened them with a steak knife.

A civil rights trial scheduled to begin this month was going to pit one of California’s best lawyers against the city of Fresno over the fatal police shooting of Martin Figueroa three years ago.

Instead, San Francisco attorney Arturo González and Martin Figueroa’s family settled their federal lawsuit against the city for $25,000. In return, the city admits no wrongdoing.

The settlement was signed on July 20. The case was dismissed in U.S. District Court in Fresno a week later.

Efforts to speak with González and city officials were unsuccessful, likely because a provision in the agreement said there would be “no public disclosure or announcement of his settlement” to the media. Terms of the six-page settlement were released Thursday after The Bee made a request to see them.

The settlement comes as a surprise because federal Judge Dale Drozd ruled in February that the wrongful-death lawsuit could proceed to trial.

In making his ruling, Drozd noted that Martin Figueroa, 27, was shot in the left armpit and three times in the back and had suffered dog bites to both of his arms.

But a court document filed on June 28 revealed disputed facts within the case.

Police say Martin Figueroa was fatally shot after he threatened officers Robert Alvarez and Mikal Clement with a knife inside a bedroom of his mother’s home on Clinton Avenue, just north of Fresno City College, during the early evening hours of May 20, 2014.

Bruce Praet, an attorney for the city and the two officers, has argued in court papers that the fatal shooting was justified. However, Drozd said in his February ruling that there is a legitimate dispute as to whether Martin Figueroa wielded a knife.

In the June 28 court filing, González contend the officers shot an unarmed Martin Figueroa while he was being restrained by a police dog. He said when officers arrived, Martin Figueroa was in the home alone and not posing a threat to anyone.

In addition, Martin Figueroa’s fingerprints were not on the knife and laboratory test results show no conclusive proof that he even touched the knife, González said.

“This shooting should never have happened,” he said.

The document says Martin Figueroa’s sister, Lizette Figueroa, called 911 asking for help. Police learned from her that her brother was on parole, was under the influence of drugs, and was acting strange and erratic.

The document also says the “undisputed facts” are these: a police dog bit Martin Figueroa, leaving multiple bite marks on his left hand, wrist and forearm, and on his right hand. Alvarez shot him once. Clements shot him three times. Martin Figueroa died at the scene.

González said in the document that the key issues include whether the officers’ use of force was “objectively reasonable” and whether the Fresno Police Department has “a practice and custom of permitting the use of excessive force, including through the use of a K-9.”

But Praet said, “Contrary to the plaintiff’s suggestion, this was not a just a call seeking help for Martin Figueroa.” He said Lizette Figueroa called 911 because she and her mother had fled their home because they were afraid for their lives.

According to Praet, Martin Figueroa refused to surrender. After more than 40 minutes of waiting, “officers determined that it was be best to send a police K-9 into the residence to locate him since officers were aware of his status as a known member of the violent Bulldog street gang,” Praet said in court papers.

Praet contended that Martin Figueroa used a knife to cut the police dog. He then raised the knife toward the two officers who were only a few feet away. When he refused to drop the knife, Clement and Alvarez “simultaneously fired their weapons in self defense,” Praet said. “Moments later, these same officers administered CPR and other (unsuccessful) life-saving treatment.”

González, however, said the officers should have diffused the situation, especially since they knew Martin Figueroa was high on drugs and hallucinating. Instead, police surrounded the home, yelled at Martin Figueroa to surrender, and decided to release the police dog and confront the man, who was alone and posed no threat to police or the public, González said.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts