Fresno taxpayers face $1 million hit as city loses long legal fight over police shooting

Stephen Willis, 23, was shot and killed by two Fresno police officers in March 2009.
Stephen Willis, 23, was shot and killed by two Fresno police officers in March 2009. Special to The Bee

The U.S Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the city of Fresno’s petition to overturn the more than $1 million it has been ordered to pay in the federal civil rights case of Stephen Willis, who was killed by police eight years ago – a shooting his parents called an execution.

The city is now out of legal options, so it will be required to pay a December 2013 jury verdict of $302,044 to Willis’ parents, said one of their lawyers, Beau Burbidge. The city also is on the hook to pay $106,852 in court costs and $717,642 in attorneys fees to the family’s legal team of Walter Walker III, Burbidge and Peter Koenig of San Francisco.

The financial hit to taxpayers, however, is not over.

The family’s lawyers have a motion before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to collect attorney fees for its legal fight against the city’s appeal. The lawyers are seeking about $185,000 in additional attorneys fees. “While the city opposes that motion, they have conceded that we are entitled to at least $82,000 in additional fees,” Burbidge said in an email on Monday.

Burbidge also said there is still a dispute over whether the Willis family should receive additional damages connected to their son’s pain and suffering right before he was fatally shot in southeast Fresno in March 2009. Both sides will present their case in U.S. District Court in Fresno on Nov. 6. Burbidge said that trial could add to the fees for which the city is on the hook.

Stephen Willis, 23, was fatally shot by police on March 28, 2009, at the Stoney Brook apartment complex in southeast Fresno.

Still unknown is how much the city has paid to defend the Fresno Police Department during the eight-year legal battle. A request by The Bee to learn that amount has not been returned.

City spokesman Mark Standriff said Monday it’s not unusual for the U.S. Supreme Court to decline to hear a petition, since the nation’s highest court receive about 7,000 requests every year and select only 150 cases to review.

Standriff said the case has been sent back to the trial court “on a very limited issue” Nov. 6. Since the case is pending, the city declined to comment further.

Willis was fatally shot shortly after midnight March 28, 2009, at the Stoney Brook apartment complex at Balch and Winery avenues. Police contend Willis, 23, pointed a gun at officers Greg Catton and Daniel Astacio and fired one round at them.

Catton and Astacio fired 41 rounds at Willis, court records say. 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 District Attorney’s Office never filed criminal charges against either officer.

Saying their son was “executed,” Chris and Mary Willis sued the Fresno Police Department in U.S. District Court in Fresno for wrongful death, negligence and excessive force.

In December 2013, a federal jury ruled police used excessive force, but said Willis contributed to his death.

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.

In December 2013, the jury ruled that Astacio committed no wrongdoing and that neither he nor Catton killed Willis out of malice, oppression or reckless disregard. But jurors found Catton used excessive force and his negligence caused Willis’ wrongful death. The jury awarded $1.51 million in damages to Willis’ parents. But because jurors also ruled that Stephen Willis was 80 percent responsible for his death, his parents were awarded only $302,044 in damages.

Because Willis’ parents prevailed in the trial, Magistrate Judge Barbara 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 accomplished a public goal, 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.”

The city appealed McAuliffe’s ruling to the Ninth Circuit. But in March this year, 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 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 shot.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts