SAN DIEGO (CN) — A federal jury Tuesday cleared a San Diego police officer for shooting to death an unarmed man after receiving false information that the parolee was a cartel member who had held someone hostage at an apartment complex.
The jury in U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s courtroom found Kristopher Walb acted reasonably when he shot Angel Lopez in the back, killing him as he fled from SWAT officers pursuing him in January 2013 for a parole violation.
Lopez’s family has sued Walb and top brass at the San Diego Police Department multiple times, though many of their claims have been dismissed. But a Ninth Circuit panel ruled in October last year that Walb should stand trial for wrongful death and civil rights claims, as physical evidence showed that “Lopez was not facing officers, did not make a threatening gesture and was in the process of complying with the officers’ commands to get down when he was shot.”
During opening statements in the trial, Lopez family attorney Gene Iredale told jurors: “The body speaks … the physical evidence speaks and does not lie.”
Iredale acknowledged during trial that Lopez “had a problem” and had served time in jail, but said that officers failed to properly vet information about Lopez which turned out to be false – including that he possessed multiple weapons – before sending a SWAT team to a San Diego apartment complex in the middle of the day.
“It is fair to say when Mr. Walb woke up on the 17th of January he didn’t expect to be killing anyone. … That morning certain information, some of which was false, was conveyed to a parole officer which was conveyed to [a police captain] who decided to call out a SWAT team,” Iredale said.
Jurors found Walb did not violate Lopez’s civil rights when he shot the man whom Deputy City Attorney Rayna Stephan said during trial was a gang member who failed repeatedly to comply with officers’ demands and reached into his left pocket in a “threatening, ready-to-engage manner.”
“They are not trained to sacrifice their own lives when faced with a deadly threat,” Stephan said, adding that if Walb had waited to shoot Lopez until the parolee pulled out a gun, “It’s too late for the officer.”
While Lopez was found with drug paraphernalia after he’d been shot, there was no pistol on his body, as officers had been told. Walb said he believed Lopez was reaching for a gun and feared for his life when he shot him three times.
“The jury heard all of the evidence and agreed that the officer acted in defense of himself and his fellow officers,” City Attorney Mara Elliott said in a statement.
“Our police officers have a tough job to do. Not many of us would run toward danger the way these officers did.”
Iredale said in an interview he usually accepts a jury’s verdict even when he loses a case, but believes in this trial the jury got it wrong.
“The facts do matter,” Iredale said. “There should be justice even for someone they say is a gang member or a bad guy who was shot in the back while complying. It hurts very much because I thought we had the better case.”
Iredale said he plans to file a motion for a new trial and if necessary, will appeal the case.
He said the City Attorney’s Office “besmirched Lopez’s character” by calling Lopez a gang member and highlighting his criminal record during the trial.
“The real effect of that is saying ‘This is a person who didn’t deserve to live,’” Iredale said.
“They did a good job; they got away with murder.”