Judge Unlikely to Exclude Commentary in Police Shooting Videos

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge said Monday he will likely let jurors hear a witness exclaim “that was unnecessary” after police officers fired dozens of rounds at a 26-year-old man on video, despite the city of San Francisco’s objections.

“Do the statements on the videos qualify as excited utterances,” U.S. District Judge William Orrick III asked during a pretrial conference Monday.

Orrick presided over a two-hour hearing in which he pared down evidence to be allowed in an upcoming two-week trial over the police shooting death of Mario Woods, a knife-wielding stabbing suspect who was killed in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood in December 2015.

Woods’ death sparked a series of protests in San Francisco, leading to a federal review of the San Francisco Police Department and changes to its training guidelines and use-of-force policies.

On Monday, Sean Connolly of the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office argued the jury shouldn’t be allowed to hear the prejudicial opinions of witnesses unqualified to say whether officers used reasonable force when they fired 27 bullets at Woods, with 21 hitting his body.

“These comments come from bystanders that see things from one perspective,” Connolly argued. “They’re a bunch of prejudicial remarks.”

But Orrick seemed inclined to stick with his tentative ruling and let witnesses’ “excited utterances” remain un-muted in cellphone videos of the shooting.

“They were witnesses on the scene,” Orrick said. “If they are, I think they come in.”

However, the judge also ruled in favor of the city on some disputes. Orrick granted San Francisco’s motion to forbid civil rights lawyers from using the terms “murdered,” “executed” or “gunned down” to describe the shooting to the jury. He also forbid San Francisco’s lawyers from uttering “lunged” or “brandished” during the trial when referring to the knife Woods held in his hand when he was shot.

The judge further indicated that he will let an expert for the city testify on levels of THC and methamphetamine found in Woods’ system after his death and the impact those drugs might have had on his behavior, despite objections from civil rights lawyers representing Woods’ mother, Gwendolyn Woods.

Woods’ lawyers plan to put an expert on the stand to testify that Woods was in the midst of a mental health crisis and that officers failed to follow their training by resorting to lethal force instead of using de-escalation tactics, such as attempting to establish a rapport with the knife-wielding suspect.

The city intends to present its own expert who will say police officers’ primary responsibility is to secure public safety before using tactics for responding to people with mental health problems.

“Rapport doesn’t always come first,” said attorney James Hannawalt of the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office.

The judge also announced that he will limit evidence of Woods’ criminal record to an adult felony conviction for robbery, but exclude crimes Woods committed as a juvenile.

Additionally, the judge barred San Francisco from using secrets that Mrs. Woods did not know about her son’s lifestyle as evidence to limit her request for monetary damages, which can only include recovery for “the loss of love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support.”

“If he came over once a week for dinner, and it also turned out he was doing really bad things on the side, I don’t think those things come in because she didn’t know,” Orrick said. “She had a relationship with him based on what she knew.”

Orrick said he would review other pieces of disputed evidence, including crime scene and autopsy photographs, and issue a final written ruling before the trial begins April 1.

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