LOS ANGELES (CN) – A Southern California police officer who shot and killed a 20-year-old student in May 2015 said in court testimony Friday that he didn’t intend to kill the man and that the shooting was “horrific.”
Long Beach Police Department officer Matthew Hernandez shot and killed Feras Morad of Woodland Hills on the evening of May 27, 2015 in the Circle neighborhood of Long Beach.
At the time he was killed, Morad was unarmed and had been seriously injured from a fall from a second floor apartment building, according to the September 2016 federal complaint.
Hernandez approached Morad, who had a large gash on his arm, in an alley behind the apartment building and exited his car immediately after believing that Morad was acting violently.
Over two days of testimony, Hernandez told a jury in federal court in Los Angeles he shouted commands at Morad and tried to get him to relax.
“Morad appeared clearly dazed, confused and disoriented. He walked around in circles, aimlessly, stumbling and staggering in the area around the parked police car, in an almost zombie-like state,” the complaint said.
Hernandez tried to arrest Morad by unsuccessfully attempting two take-down methods and shooting him twice with a Taser gun.
The department never provided training in ground fighting and Hernandez said he was attempting these moves for the first time in his life.
A baton was left in the police car and Hernandez said he hasn’t carried pepper spray on him for years after being hit with it in a training exercise.
Hernandez approached Morad alone in response to a dispatch call rather than waiting for backup. He said in court testimony Thursday he believed “backup was en route.”
Hernandez told his attorney Peter James Ferguson with Ferguson Praet & Sherman that he believed Morad was an immediate threat and that he could “overpower me and take my weapon.”
According to Hernandez, Morad walked towards him – crouched like a boxer with his fists up – saying that he was “coming to get” him. At one point, Morad tried to elbow him in the head, he said.
“Rather than respond with the medical care he needed, or the compassion owed to a wounded and disoriented young man, Hernandez fatally shot Morad five times, twice in the chest, from point blank range.” the complaint said.
Hernandez told the jury Thursday that if Morad would have “followed my commands” and sat down he would have “summoned” the firefighters on the scene to assess Morad.
Ferguson asked him if that was his plan based on his police training.
“Yes, that was my plan,” Hernandez told Ferguson. “But he didn’t comply.”
Three members of the Long Beach Fire Department were present at the scene, according to court papers.
Morad family attorney Dan Stormer of Hadsell Stormer & Renick said the firefighters offered to help “take him down,” adding that in their testimony they told Hernandez not to shoot Morad.
“These [firefighters] were all big guys,” Stormer said. “[Hernandez] claims not to have heard them.”
Hernandez said Friday he couldn’t hear anything the firefighters or Morad’s friends said, but couldn’t deny their testimony.
During his testimony on Thursday, Hernandez told Howard Russell, an attorney for the city of Long Beach, that he heard Morad’s two debate team friends at the scene say, “dude, stop, put your hands up and do what he says.”
Ferguson asked Hernandez why he didn’t request support from the firefighters on scene.
“In 13 years of service, I’ve never been involved in a detention where firemen assisted,” Hernandez said, adding that firefighters were standing far from the scene and that they don’t carry handcuffs.
Hernandez said he engaged Morad in order to “render the scene safe” and used force because he thought he was intoxicated.
“In my mind, I was the last line of defense between myself and the firefighters,” he said.
At one point, Morad walked behind the police car, away from Hernandez who followed him.
“You followed him because you had a perception that he was threatening you,” Stormer told Hernandez on Friday. “That was incorrect.”
Soon after, according to Stormer, Morad appeared ready to submit but Hernandez used a “belt pull” to get Morad into a prone position.
Hernandez said he “wanted to take advantage” of Morad being in that position so that he could attempt an arrest.
Stormer told Courthouse News there are several moments in the case where Hernandez’s perception “is off.”
In his deposition, Hernandez described Morad as a 230-pound man with a “large, thick build,” according to Stormer, even though Morad was closer to the same weight and build as Hernandez.
After the shooting, Hernandez wrote an initial incident report which he called a “nuts and bolts” report. He filed a supplemental report three days later.
“After time to mentally decompress, I recalled certain details such as the elbowing attempt,” Hernandez said, adding that he also recalled a leg injury he sustained in the incident.
After seeing photos taken at the scene immediately after the incident, Hernandez changed his report to say Morad took a different walking path than the one he previously described.
On the night of his death, Morad had been studying at the apartment building with his friends and members of the debate team. He had accepted an offer to study at California State University Long Beach and was due to begin classes in the fall of 2015.
Stormer told Courthouse News on Friday that Morad’s family is “devastated” by their loss.
“He was a charmed child,” Stormer said, “a national debate champion. The family is just crushed.”
Before his high school graduation in 2013, Morad became the second student ever in his school’s history to qualify for the National Speech and Debate Championship Tournament. He finished 14th nationally.
Morad’s family seeks attorney’s fees, restitution, compensatory and punitive damages for excessive force, failure to provide medical care and denial of due process.
The trial will continue on Tuesday morning though Hernandez will face no further questioning on the stand.