SAN DIEGO (CN) – Six men and six women deliberated for less than two hours Wednesday before unanimously finding an El Cajon police officer was not negligent when he fired four shots and killed a Ugandan immigrant in September 2016 while responding to a call for mental distress.
Wednesday’s verdict marks the end of the road for litigation brought against the city of El Cajon and Officer Richard Gonsalves by the family of Alfred Olango over the shooting death of their husband, father and brother. The week-long trial in Judge Kenneth Medel’s courtroom was the only case of several brought by the family to make it to the hands of a jury.
The family had asked the jury to award them millions in damages.
Gonsalves shot and killed Olango in a strip mall in the east San Diego County city of El Cajon on Sept. 26, 2016. The shooting happened within about 90 seconds of Gonsalves arriving on the scene after Olango’s sister Lucy Olango had placed multiple 911 calls requesting help for her brother who was experiencing a mental health crisis.
Olango, who had never been diagnosed with a mental health condition, had been darting in and out of traffic on a busy street that morning and wasn’t “acting like himself.”
After Gonsalves encountered Olango, he would not take his hand out of his pocket when the officer requested he show his hands. Surveillance footage of the shooting showed Olango suddenly removed his hand from his pocket, and point a shiny metal object at Gonsalves’ head before he was shot by the officer.
The object turned out to be an e-cigarette.
A toxicology report performed by the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office following Olango’s death showed he had cocaine in his system when he died.
When the verdict was read in Medel’s courtroom Wednesday, Gonsalves, who was present throughout the trial, broke down in tears.
Several members of Olango’s family attended the trial daily but were not present when the verdict was read.
Attorney Mitchell Dean of Daley & Heft, representing El Cajon and Gonsalves, told Courthouse News following the trial “it was tragic for everybody.”
“The verdict says nothing about the actual pain the family has gone through. Their husband, their father, their brother was killed in a tragic circumstance,” Dean said.
Jurors were “shocked” by how large the e-cigarette, box-like vaping device was, Dean said of the apparatus that was available for the jurors to inspect in the jury room. Dean said the jurors, including some who own guns, thought the barrel of the e-cigarette “almost exactly” resembled the barrel of a gun when Olango pointed it at Gonsalves.
“They felt he had no choice at that point,” Dean said.
Juror Clinton Lariscy echoed those comments.
“What Officer Gonsalves did at the time and situation was completely appropriate,” Lariscy said.
Attorney Jim Mitchell of The Gilleon Law Firm, who represents Lucy Olango, said “We’re very disappointed the jury let Officer Gonsalves off-the-hook.”
During closing arguments Wednesday morning, Brian Dunn of The Cochran Firm California, representing Olango’s estranged wife Tania Rozier and daughter Chare Rozier-Olango, told jurors “It’s going to be up to you to find out what happened out there.”
“We brought the case because a man was killed and from the bottom of our hearts we believe it didn’t have to happen,” Dunn said.
“If police rules and guidelines had been followed, a man wouldn’t have had to be killed,” Dunn added.
Dunn called Olango the “weakest person” in the incident while standing at a podium positioned a few feet away from the jury box like a church pulpit.
“Law enforcement officers have the power of mental capacity, the power of each other, the power of coordinated resources, the power of training,” Dunn said.
“The strong should help out the weak.”
Dunn said Gonsalves failed to follow California’s Peace Officer Standards and Training guidelines for encountering people with disabilities and mental illness and “rushed” the encounter by failing to wait for his partner before engaging with Olango.
Dean disputed the case was about mental illness, saying it’s Olango’s cocaine use earlier in the day which caused his erratic behavior before he was encountered by Gonsalves.
He said the “game changer” of the incident was when Olango pulled out of his pocket what 22-year police veteran Gonsalves believed was a gun.
“We know darn well Officer Gonsalves actually believed that was a gun,” Dean said.
“Why did he do that? We’ll never know,” he added.