Federal jury: Sanger cops did not use excessive force in fatal shooting of suicidal Marine

The tragic case of a suicidal Marine Corps veteran who called 911 and asked police to kill him ended Thursday when a federal civil-rights jury ruled that three Sanger police officers with assault rifles did not use excessive force – nor were they negligent – when they riddled his body with bullets in June 2012.

The jury’s verdict in U.S District Court in Fresno was a dramatic ending to a trial that gave a rare glimpse into an officer-involved shooting: A bystander videotaped it as it unfolded. The officers didn’t know about the videotape when they gave their account of the incident to Fresno County sheriff’s investigators.

The 12-second video shows five officers facing Salinas, who was unarmed and standing in a flower bed. The officers had formed a skirmish line, a police tactic in which officers stand side by side.

Officer Robert Pulkownik shot Salinas twice with a shotgun that fires beanbags. 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 left the flower bed outside a business on Academy Avenue.

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.

The video wasn’t enough to sway the jury of five men and three women, who voted unanimously to find the officers had done nothing wrong.

The verdict came after seven hours of deliberations over two days and two weeks of testimony in U.S. District Court in Fresno. Federal law requires a unanimous verdict in all cases. By contrast, in Superior Court civil verdicts can be reached with as few as nine of 12 jurors on the same side.

Before the verdict was announced, the Salinas family braced for the worst because the jurors never looked at them. Instead, jurors fixed their eyes toward Judge Anthony Ishii.

Once the verdict was announced, some members of the Salinas family cried silently, while sighs of relief filled the courtroom from the defendants’ side.

Afterward, the jurors declined to talk with lawyers and slipped out of the courthouse through a back exit.

Devastated, Salinas family members also left the courthouse without commenting.

Dale Allen Jr., the attorney for the officers, said it was a tragic case for both sides. “There are no winners,” he said.

During the trial, both sides agreed that on June 15, 2012, a drunken Salinas called 911 at 2:59 p.m. and told police 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 promised dispatch that he would not hurt the officers, but would provoke them to shoot him.

Twelve minutes later, he was shot 11 times in the forehead, chest, abdomen, right thigh and in the back, killing him instantly.

Salinas’ sister, Esperanza Booke, sued the city of Sanger 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. She and her siblings were seeking more than $6 million in damages.

In defending the officers, Allen said the officers feared for their lives and that of the public because Salinas had made a sudden move with his left hand toward his waistband, as if to get a knife or gun.

And during the trial, Boust, Yambupah, Little and Pulkownik testified that Salinas never complied with orders to put his hands over his head and surrender. Instead, the officers testified that Salinas got into an angled “bladed” stance as if he wanted to fight. He then lunged, charged or sprinted at them, forcing them to shoot him.

McCahill, however, testified that he never feared for his life and that he didn’t believe lethal force was necessary.

Attorney Robert Hamparyan, who represented the Salinas family, argued that the video didn’t support the officers’ 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. He also pointed out that the defendants’ own expert testified that Salinas’ left hand moved toward his left side after he was shot with beanbags.

“You can’t pick and choose your own reality,” Hamparyan said of the officers’ account.

Before reaching their verdict, jurors asked the judge to go over the elements required to find the officers negligent. They also wanted to see the video of the shooting again – at regular speed and in slow motion.

After the verdict was announced, Hamparyan was last seen talking with the Salinas family and could not be reached to comment.

Allen said Thursday that the video didn’t tell the whole story. He praised the jury for carefully considering the officers’ plight – that they were asked to confront a mentally ill subject who was unpredictable and potentially dangerous and were forced to make a split-second decision. “The jury understood that the officers relied on the information that they had at the time,” Allen said.

Allen also had kind words for the Salinas family. “They truly loved their brother and tried to help him, but he kept walking away from the help,” Allen said.

In leaving the courthouse, Allen said, “It was a very emotional ending for my clients. This verdict reinforces their trust and faith in the jury system.”

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts