After listening to two weeks of testimony, a federal civil rights jury began deliberating Wednesday to determine whether three Sanger police officers with assault rifles were justified when they shot and killed suicidal Marine Corps veteran Charles Salinas in June 2012.
The jury of three women and five men has a lot of evidence to consider, including a cellphone video of the shooting that was taken by a bystander that showed Salinas, 46, was unarmed when he was shot. The video was taken without the officers’ knowledge.
In closing statements Wednesday, attorney Robert Hamparyan, who represents Salinas’ family, said the video is a key piece of evidence because “it doesn’t lie.”
The video shows five officers standing in skirmish line, a police tactic in which officers stand side by side. It’s a formation typically used in riot situations, Hamparyan told the jury.
The video shows officer Robert Pulkownik shooting Salinas twice with a shotgun that fires bean bags. Simultaneously, Sgt. Jason Boust and officers Angela Yambupah and Preston Little fired 22 rounds at Salinas with assault rifles, striking him 11 times as he leaves a flower bed outside a business on Academy Avenue and falls to the ground.
The officers were 10 to 15 feet from Salinas before they opened fire. Fresno County sheriff’s Sgt. Joshua McCahill, who assisted on the call, pointed a handgun at Salinas but did not fire his weapon.
Hamparyan said the video also shows the officers shooting Salinas while he was on the ground.
Attorney Dale Allen Jr., who represents the officers, agreed the video doesn’t lie, “but it doesn’t tell the whole story.”
In his final summation, Allen said the officers feared for their lives or of their colleagues because Salinas made a sudden move with his left hand toward his waistband, as if to get a knife or gun.
During the trial, Boust, Yambupah, Little and Pulkownik testified that Salinas first got into an angled “bladed” stance as if he wanted to fight. He then went for something in his waistband before he lunged, charged or sprinted at them, forcing them to shoot him.
Hamparyan said the video doesn’t support the officer’s version of the shooting. He also told the jury that not one officer ever said they saw Salinas with a weapon or ever heard him verbally threaten the officers. In addition, Hamparyan said it’s undisputed that the officers shot Salinas after he complied with the officers’ orders to get out of the flower bed. And the defendants’ own expert testified that Salinas’ left hand moved toward his left side after he was shot with the less-lethal shotgun, Hamparyan said.
“You can’t pick and choose your own reality,” Hamparyan said of the officers’ account.
The trial in U.S. District Court in Fresno gives a rare glimpse into an officer-involved shooting because the officers didn’t know they had been videotaped when they gave their account of the shooting to Fresno County sheriff’s investigators.
Salinas’ sister, Esperanza Booke, has sued the city of Sanger in U.S. District Court in Fresno for violation of Salinas’ civil rights, saying the officers use of deadly force against an unarmed and mentally distraught man was unjustified, excessive and a callous disregard for human life. The officers also are accused of negligence.
The case is high stakes because Judge Anthony Ishii has ruled that the jury could give the Salinas family punitive damages if the officers’ conduct was malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard for Salinas’ Fourth Amendment right to be free of excessive force.
After deliberating more than three hours, the jury went home. They will return Thursday.
The courtroom was packed Wednesday with family, friends, Sanger police officers and sheriff deputies sitting on the side of the defendants. On the other side were Salinas’ family and their supporters, which included former Sanger Police Chief Tom Klose.
In presenting his case, Hamparyan asked the jury to award Booke and her relatives $6 million in damages plus punitive damages in order to punish the officers and deter them from committing similar acts in the future.
Allen, however, said the Salinas family deserve nothing since Salinas initiated the deadly confrontation.
Hamparyan also alleged a police cover-up: The defendants gave similar accounts of the shooting after they stayed together in a room at police headquarters for more than four hours and talked to a lawyer and police Chief Silver Rodriguez before meeting with Fresno County sheriff’s detectives.
But Allen mocked the alleged conspiracy or the so-called “code of silence,” saying officers were ordered not to talk about the shooting until after they talked to sheriff’s detectives. In addition, at least a dozen people saw the shooting, so the officers could not lie about what happened.
Both sides agree that on June 15, 2012, a drunken Salinas called 911 at 2:59 p.m. and told dispatch that he had a gun and two knives and wanted police to kill him.
“When they get here, tell them to shoot me,” Salinas told the dispatcher. But Salinas also promises dispatch that he would not hurt the officers, but would provoke them to shoot him.
Within 12 minutes of his 911 call, he would be shot 11 times in the forehead, chest, abdomen, right thigh and in the back, killing him instantly.
The video is 12 second long. But what happened before the shooting is just as crucial.
After Salinas made his 911 call, dispatch told the officers that Salinas wanted to commit suicide by cop, but promised not to hurt them. Salinas told dispatch he was in “combat gear” but when officers found him he was wearing a dark Dodgers T-shirt, blue jeans and white tennis shoes.
Yambupah first saw Salinas in an alley. She testified that he was moving aggressively toward her and putting his hands under his shirt as if to get a weapon. When she aimed her assault rifle, Salinas ran.
Hamparyan argued that if Salinas wanted to kill himself, he would have told Yambupah to kill him. Hamparyan also said Yambupah never told dispatch or her fellow officers that Salinas was moving aggressively toward her and putting his hands under his shirt.
Salinas ran to the flower bed where Pulkownik found him lying on his side. Hamparyan told the jury that Salinas lying in the flower bed does not equate to someone wanting police to kill him.
Pulkownik said Salinas repeatedly failed to comply with orders to show his hands or put his hands up and surrender. He also recalled talking to Salinas about his military service, how Salinas mumbled his name, rank and serial number “like a POW.”
Though Pulkownik and Boust said Salinas never raised his hands over his head to surrender, McCahill testified that Salinas showed his hands and raised them as high as his shoulders. McCahill also said the encounter with Salinas was not a lethal situation, which conflicted with the other officers’ versions of what happened.
Hamparyan said the defendant’s own expert also testified that Salinas stepped out of the flower bed in a normal fashion; he was not running. Though Little testified that he fired his assault rifle before Pulkownik fired his bean-bag shotgun, Hamparyan said scientific evidence gleaned from the video shows that Pulkownik fired first, then the other officers fired their assault rifles simultaneously.
Hamparyan contends the officers created a hostile situation by yelling at Salinas, instead of trying to defuse the situation. He told the jury that defendants disregarded their training and violated department policies and standard police procedures when they shot Salinas, who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and depression. In addition, Hamparyan said, the officers all agreed that Salinas had not committed a crime when he was shot.
But Allen said Salinas was unpredictable and could have had a weapon hidden in his waistband. “The officers believed in their heart of hearts” that they acted in accordance with their training and had to make a split-second decision to shoot him, Allen said.
In judging the case, Allen implored the jury to put themselves in the officers’ shoes and view it from their position at the time of the shooting, “not with 20-20 vision of hindsight.”
But Hamparyan said Salinas had a right to call 911 and get help, and the officers had no valid reason for shooting him since he never displayed a weapon. “No one is above the law,” he told the jury.