Knife on Man Killed by Cop Doesn’t Sway Court

     (CN) – Citing contradictory accounts by witnesses who saw the killing of a man sitting in a stolen car, a federal judge said police were not necessarily justified.
     Mohammed Shah, 21, was asleep, his estate claims, when Allen Neula, a police officer in Hayward, Calif., found him sitting in a stolen Honda.
     The Oct. 5, 2012, confrontation ended with Neula kicking in the Honda’s window and shooting Shah three to four times.
     One round entered through Shah’s neck, and he died at the scene.
     Neula said in his report that Shah failed to follow his commands, became combative and threatened him with a pocketknife.
     Hayward and Neula moved for summary judgment, but U.S. District Judge Laurel Beeler in San Francisco kept the case going on April 27, refusing to credit their story about a knife allegedly found on Shah.
     “The knife is important,” Beeler wrote, noting that it could corroborate Neula’s claim “that he shot based on Mr. Shah’s saying ‘I got something for you’ and Mr. Shah’s simultaneous reaching into the” backseat.
     Though nothing contradicts Neula’s testimony that Shah had a knife and threatened him, Beeler called it “striking … that no officer mentioned the knife until medical personnel had already removed Mr. Shah from the scene.”
     “The backup officers’ own testimony shows that, in cases where a suspect has a weapon, it is normal for officers to alert one another to that fact,” the opinion states. “Because Mr. Shah is dead, the testimony of Officer Divinagracia and Sergeant Farro on this point – even if offered in the best of faith – cannot be treated as dispositive. The jury must hear and weigh the testimony.”
     Beeler also emphasized the “marked” difference between Neula’s testimony and an eyewitness’s account of the incident.
     Grace Nelson “recounts that Mr. Shah kept his hands up the entire time in response to Officer Neula’s orders to do so, and that while his right hand dropped down after Officer Neula smashed the window (a logical physical reaction if one considers the scenario), it never dropped below his shoulder,” Beeler wrote. “She also testified that Mr. Shah did not bend down or reach in back, which again contradicts Officer Neula’s account.
     “These are important and perhaps dispositive differences, particularly given that the undisputed evidence is that Officer Neula did not warn Mr. Shah that he might use deadly force.”
     Beeler said the question of immunity is premature.
     “Officer Neula may be entitled to qualified immunity after the disputed material facts are resolved,” she wrote. “But, for now, the court denies the defendants’ motion insofar as it asks the court [to] conclude as a matter of law that Officer Neula is immune. The Ninth Circuit has said: ‘Where the officers’ entitlement to qualified immunity depends on the resolution of disputed issues of fact in their favor, and against the non-moving party, summary judgment is not appropriate.”
     Attempts to reach Shah’s attorneys, John Burris and Adante Pointer, were unsuccessful. Defense attorney Michael Lawson did not immediately return a call.
     Questions about the circumstances surrounding the purported stolen car, and what Shah was actually doing inside it when Neula happened upon him, still remain.
     Beeler concluded: “The court has … found that, in assessing the record of evidence, a reasonable jury could conclude both that Mr. Shah was unarmed and that, contrary to Officer Neula’s testimony, he in fact complied with the officer’s orders.”

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