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Family’s Suit Claiming Police Shooting Cover-up Advances

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge this week refused to dismiss a lawsuit claiming a deputy district attorney conspired with police to "execute" a 21-year-old man and cover up his murder.

John and Tammy Burns say police shot and killed their unarmed son, Charles Burns, in Antioch on May 10, 2013, after he fled from a truck being pulled over as part of a sting operation but then stopped to surrender to police.

The Burns sued 22 officials and officers from the cities of Antioch, Concord and the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office in February 2014.

Police say Burns was holding a cellphone when he was shot and carrying methamphetamine and ecstasy in his waistband, which led to the discovery of 1.5 pounds of meth, an illegal gun and $17,000 in cash at his home the day after his death.

Peter Johnson, the family's attorney, has called the police account "full of flat-out lies."

The district attorney's office used a voluntary countywide policy called the Law Enforcement Involved Fatality Investigation to look into the shooting.

The policy, which involves multiple agencies in the investigation, was originally meant to provide transparency, but in a county with a well-connected law enforcement community, Johnson says transparency and accountability are severely lacking.

"It's a pretty tight-knit group between law enforcement and Contra Costa County, and I don't think they have the checks and balances in place that there should be," Johnson said.

The officers who shot Burns were given the opportunity to coordinate with each other and consult with lawyers before they gave statements the day after the shooting, Johnson said.

In a March 14 ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler rejected a motion to dismiss claims that Deputy District Attorney Kevin Bell conspired with police to fabricate evidence and plan the sting operation in which Burns was killed.

Bell is accused of making false statements on a police warrant, stating that Burns was a member of a non-existent gang, in order to assign him a "falsely high and falsely dangerous level of criminality and risk."

The Burns say Bell also "stood by and watched" as their son was executed and refused to help or intervene when a police dog attacked their son after he fell to the ground in a hail of gunfire.

Beeler dismissed a claim of deliberate indifference to provide medical care against Bell, "given his undisputed role during the actual shooting as an observer."

The Burns also say co-plaintiff Bobby Lawrence, who was driving the truck the night of the sting operation, was wrongly detained and arrested while police coordinated their stories to cover up the shooting.

The lawsuit claims police manipulated the audio recording of Lawrence's interview with police, leaving parts of the interview out and taking statements out of context to justify their conduct.

As police interrogated Lawrence, the officers that shot Burns were taken to hotel rooms where they were given the opportunity to consult with lawyers, the plaintiffs say.

Beeler found the lawsuit adequately alleges wrongful detention claims against three investigators who interrogated Lawrence.

However, the judge tossed wrongful arrest and detention claims against three supervisors - Deputy District Attorney Barry Grove, Concord police Lt. David Hughes, and Antioch police Sgt. Anthony Morefield - finding the facts insufficient.

"The allegations about them are vague and conclusory and do not raise a plausible inference that the supervisors participated in the conduct or acted unreasonably, in bad faith, or with knowledge of his illegal detention," Beeler wrote in her 13-page ruling.

Although she declined to dismiss claims against the supervisors with prejudice, Beeler said the plaintiffs must show good cause why they should be allowed to amend their complaint, given that the deadline to amend passed in January.

Moving forward with the lawsuit is crucial to the Burns family, Johnson said, because "they know their son was killed in a manner that was unjustified, and they can't possibly walk away from a situation like that."

Johnson said his clients consider the lawsuit vital not only for their slain son but also for the wider community.

Since controversy over the shooting erupted nearly three years ago, Johnson said the county has made some changes to its policy for investigating police-involved fatalities. But he still feels further reforms are needed.

"That's what we're trying to do is essentially change these critical policies," Johnson said. "That's why it serves the greater good as well."

Paul Mulligan, chief of inspectors for the DA's office, said the policy for investigating police shootings was recently changed to make sure officers cannot review body or police camera footage before they make official statements.

The county has always maintained a policy that officers should be separated and sequestered before they give their accounts of what happened in a shooting, he said.

"We want the officers separated," Mulligan said. "That's always been desired - to have everyone interviewed by our teams and if at all possible that they don't confer beforehand."

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