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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Alcohol Evidence OK’d in Police Killing Trial

           SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge will permit evidence to be presented that a man was drunk when police shot him to death in Northern California, when the case goes to trial next month.
     Eureka police Officer Steven Linfoot killed 22-year-old Thomas McClain in McClain's front yard on Sept. 17, 2014.
     McClain's parents, Lance McClain and Jeanne Barragan, sued the city for wrongful death in May 2015. They said their son was complying with orders and had his hands in the air when Linfoot fired seven bullets, three of which hit McClain.
     The city says McClain was reaching for what turned out to be a replica BB gun in his waistband, and that Linfoot acted appropriately to neutralize a potentially deadly threat.
     U.S. District Judge William Orrick III said at hearing two weeks ago that he was leaning toward excluding evidence of McClain's drunkenness and hearing problems.
     During that hearing, an attorney for the city said that evidence of McClain's alleged intoxication was necessary to explain why he did "the stupid thing" of reaching for a fake gun when officers had weapons trained on him. McClain's family disputes the city's claim that McClain was going for the replica gun and has one witness expected to testify at trial that McClain had his hands in the air when he was shot.
     The family's attorney called evidence of McClain's drinking prejudicial and irrelevant because officers had no knowledge of McClain's alcohol consumption at the time.
     Orrick said in a 6-page ruling on Wednesday, Oct. 19, that he would allow witnesses to testify about the amount and types of drinks McClain consumed that night.
     But Orrick barred the city from showing the jury a toxicology report, which found McClain had a blood-alcohol content of 0.13 percent, because the city offered no experts to speak on the impact alcohol may have had on McClain's actions.
     The city had also asked the judge to exclude testimony that McClain had a hearing impairment.
     The use of reasonable force must be judged from the perspective of what the officer knew at the time, the city argued, and no officers had knowledge of McClain's hearing problems.
     Orrick ruled that because he allowed the city to present evidence of McClain's drinking, of which officers had no knowledge at the time, he would permit evidence of McClain's hearing impairment as well.
     In both cases, Orrick said, he would issue limiting instructions, telling the jury that "this evidence is not relevant to the reasonableness of the officers' use of force under the totality of circumstances inquiry, and may only be considered as supporting or undermining testimony regarding McClain's actions immediately prior to the shooting."
     The trial is set to start on Nov. 14 at the Federal Courthouse in McKinleyville in Humboldt County, 13 miles north of Eureka.
     Eureka, pop. 27,000, is 270 miles north of San Francisco and about 100 miles south of the Oregon border. It is the Humboldt County seat.

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