LOS ANGELES (CN) – An attorney for a 20-year-old student shot and killed by a Long Beach police officer in May 2015 said in federal court Wednesday that the officer “succumbed” to fear and panic and produced conflicting reports of the incident to make himself look like the victim.
Experts and eyewitnesses have testified during the 2-week trial, before U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald, over a shooting that the victim’s attorneys have called “unjustified and unnecessary.”
The officer’s attorneys have called the shooting “tragic” but said the officer gave “plenty of commands that were unheeded.”
Long Beach police officer Matthew Hernandez shot and killed Feras Morad of Woodland Hills on the evening of May 27, 2015 in the Circle neighborhood of Long Beach.
At the time he was killed, Morad was unarmed and disoriented after having fallen from the second floor of an apartment building and sustaining serious injuries, according to the September 2016 federal complaint.
Three members of the Long Beach Fire Department were at the scene, according to court papers, attempting to provide Morad with medical care.
Hernandez approached Morad alone in response to a dispatch call rather than wait for backup that was on the way.
During closing arguments on Wednesday, Morad’s attorney Dan Stormer of Hadsell Stormer & Renick said “any officer of similar training would have waited [for backup]” rather than engage Morad.
Hernandez testified in court July 5 that he believed “backup was en route.”
During his testimony, he told his attorney Peter Ferguson with Ferguson Praet & Sherman that he believed Morad was an immediate threat and he could “overpower me and take my weapon.”
Stormer said Hernandez was “overwhelmed by fear” during the incident.
“Fear, panic, anger; these are not a reasonable excuse for [deadly use of force],” Stormer said. “He succumbed to them. If [Hernandez] had not shown up that day, Morad would be alive.”
Howard Russell, an attorney for the city of Long Beach, said he didn’t agree with Stormer’s “characterization” of Hernandez as a “coward who executed a harmless man” who needed medical care.
“If [Hernandez] truly panicked, why didn’t he empty his magazine with 12 bullets? Why didn’t he choke [Morad] or beat his head with the flashlight?” Russell said. “This [shooting] is tragic but based on the evidence [the jury] must determine that it was reasonable.”
Stormer said it was Hernandez’s report and his attorneys who established a “fear-based scenario.”
After the shooting, Hernandez went back to his police station to meet with his attorney and the president of the Long Beach Police Officers’ Association.
The group went over the details of the shooting and later visited the scene to lay out cones marking the positions of Morad and Hernandez during the incident.
Stormer said the group went over everything but “forgot that there was no felony and therefore [Hernandez] couldn’t use deadly force.”
Hernandez said in his testimony that, after getting some rest, he “remembered more details” that led him to change his original incident report. His supplemental report claimed that Morad tried to elbow him in the head, which he claimed was “assault with a deadly weapon.”
The 8-member jury has begun deliberations in the case. There is no indication as of yet when they will return a verdict, according to courtroom Deputy Rita Sanchez.
During their closing argument, Morad’s attorneys placed a large picture of Morad in front of the jury box. They showed an image of his academic awards and played a home video that showed Morad as an infant being tossed up in the air, hugged and kissed by his family.
Hernandez’s attorney Kyle Bevin with Ferguson Praet & Sherman said Hernandez was “forced to make a tough decision in a tense situation.”
Hernandez hadn’t seen and home videos or any of Morad’s awards, he said.
“No one denies this is a tragic case,” Bevin said. “The Feras Morad that [Hernandez] encountered is markedly different.”
Bevin said it may be hard for the jury to “separate emotion from cold legal analysis” but that in this case it would be wrong to award damages to Morad’s family.
Bevin was scolded in court by Stormer for saying that firefighters “get paid to workout, exchange chili recipes and polish the fire engine.”
Stormer called Bevin’s comments “disrespectful and improper.”
Morad’s attorneys have argued that the firefighters on the scene could have restrained Morad without deadly force and repeatedly told Hernandez not to shoot him.
During his testimony, Ferguson asked Hernandez why he didn’t request support from the firefighters.
“In 13 years of service, I’ve never been involved in a detention where firemen assisted,” Hernandez said, adding that firefighters were standing far from the scene and that they don’t carry handcuffs.
Bevin argued that firefighters on the scene “whose job it was to provide medical assistance,” don’t have law enforcement training or prepare for takedowns.
Morad had no criminal record and never had a prior encounter with police.
Morad’s family seeks attorneys’ fees, restitution, compensatory and punitive damages for excessive force, failure to provide medical care and denial of due process.
In August 2017, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey declined to press criminal charges against Hernandez, concluding in her report that there was “insufficient evidence to prove” that Hernandez “did not act in law self-defense and in defense of others.”
According to The Guardian’s database of police shootings of civilians, Morad was one of 1,146 people shot and killed by police in 2015.