SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – After less than a day of deliberations, an eight-member jury on Thursday found four San Francisco police officers did not use excessive force in the 2014 shooting death of Alex Nieto.
Nieto’s family sued police officers Jason Sawyer, Roger Morse, Richard Schiff and Nathan Chew, who said they shot the 28-year-old Nieto because he was pointing what looked like a gun at them. Nieto had a Taser, which he carried for his job as a security guard.
The family’s attorney argued Nieto never pointed the Taser at officers as they claimed he had.
Speaking outside the Federal Courthouse after the verdict was announced, Deputy City Attorney Margaret Baumgartner was hounded by activists shouting “killer cops.”
The city lawyer said the officers were relieved the jury saw her clients were telling the truth.
“This was a singular event by these officers who had to make an instantaneous decision on what to do,” Baumgartner said. “We didn’t want there to be any question they were being truthful and honest.”
Taser data showing Nieto pulled the trigger on the weapon during the altercation with police was “the most compelling evidence” of the trial, Baumgartner said.
The accuracy of that data was disputed by the Nietos, who said the timestamp on the Taser was altered to support the officers’ story.
Ely Flores, a friend of Alex Nieto’s for eight years, said he was extremely disappointed in the outcome. Flores said Nieto was working toward becoming a probation officer and would never have disobeyed police commands or pulled his Taser on officers.
“When someone points a gun at you and threatens you with lethal force, you don’t act that way,” Flores said.
The Nieto family’s attorney, Adante Pointer, said this was a sad day for the Nietos, but even a sadder day for the city of San Francisco.
“We are willing to accept officers gunning down a person with 59 bullets when the physical evidence contradicts the officers’ story,” Pointer said.
Nieto had stopped in Bernal Heights Park to eat a burrito on his way to work as a security guard at a restaurant on March 21, 2014, when someone called police to report an armed man in the park.
“He wound up with 18 bullet holes for enjoying his burrito,” Pointer told reporters outside the Federal Courthouse after the verdict was announced.
The officers testified they saw a red laser beaming from Nieto’s weapon when they fired on him. Pointer presented jurors a crime scene photo showing the Taser was off after the shooting and argued the Taser had never been turned on during the altercation.
That photograph combined with a bone fragment found in Nieto’s jacket pocket proved that the 28-year-old’s hands were in his pockets when he was shot, Pointer argued.
The city’s legal team pointed out that no bullet holes were found in the jacket pocket and that jurors should not speculate as to how that bone fragment ended up in Nieto’s pocket.
Pointer said the medical examiner never took photos of the jacket Nieto was wearing, and that the bullet may have grazed his coat while his hands were in his pockets.
“They claim a man’s hands are in front of him, but a wrist bone is found in his pocket,” Pointer said. “When you have the evidence, what more will it take?”
The civil rights attorney added that this is not the only case in which San Francisco police officers are accused of unlawfully killing a young man of color.
“This is just one more notch on the San Francisco Police Department’s belt,” Pointer said.
A lawsuit over the shooting death of 26-year-old Mario Woods is also making its way its way through Federal Court. Woods’ death prompted changes in the police department’s use of force policies, training methods and a voluntary federal review of the SFPD.
Baumgartner said the four officers who were cleared of wrongdoing in the Nieto trial will likely take a day or two off after hearing the verdict, but they will be back on the job soon.
Pointer said the Nietos are “still considering all their legal options” and have not ruled out filing an appeal.
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