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Texas cops’ civil trial begins Monday for killing man with hands up

A viral video that sparked public outrage in 2015 captured the moment two San Antonio sheriff’s deputies shot and killed an unarmed, shirtless man who had his hands up.

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — Nearly seven years after the videotaped killing of Gilbert Flores gained national attention for showing the shirtless man with his hands up shot to death in his driveway, the civil trial for the two deputies accused of using excessive force will begin Monday in federal court.

The deadly encounter that ended Flores’ life unfolded over approximately 12 minutes on the afternoon of Aug. 28, 2015 after deputies Greg Vasquez and Robert Sanchez of the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department responded to a domestic disturbance call at the Flores home.

Flores had assaulted his wife and newborn child, there was blood throughout the home and the 41-year-old man in the midst of a mental breakdown was in possession of a knife, his mother, Carmen Flores, told 911 dispatch.

That’s when Flores cut into his mother’s emergency call and stated for the first time his plan to perform “suicide by cop,” according to court documents filed this week.

While there is no dispute that the two deputies heard Flores make the suicide comment, and tell them he “wasn’t going back to prison” during their confrontation with him, what officers knew at the time of the shooting versus what they learned after have been at the heart of the legal case filed a month after the shooting by famed Texas attorney Thomas J. Henry’s law firm.

“Obviously there’s some information these officers knew after the fact,” Flores family attorney Robert Wilson said at a final pretrial hearing on March 11. But he told Senior U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth that “any facts or information learned by the deputies after the shooting is not relevant.”

Opening arguments are set to unfold next week after a pool of about 30 potential jurors is narrowed down to eight, including two alternates, at the still-unnamed new federal courthouse in downtown San Antonio.

At the center of the trial will be a bystander’s viral cell phone video that captured the moment Vasquez and Sanchez fired at Flores while he raised his hands in the air and remained motionless, with a knife in one hand. An FBI enhanced version showing the video plus what officers were told by dispatch will also be offered as evidence for jurors, along with the large, fixed blade Ozark Trail knife Flores held.

Attorneys for the Flores family have argued that the man had surrendered in the seconds before he was shot and therefore posed no immediate threat to the officers to justify their use of deadly force.

But Charles Frigerio, lead counsel for the deputies, said in a court filing March 16 that his clients faced seven deadly force encounters that placed them in continued fear for their lives from the moment Vasquez first entered the residence and thwarted off an attack from a knife-wielding Flores.

The case against the deputies was allowed to proceed to trial after U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in 2017 denied their requests for immunity after finding that their use of force was unreasonable.

His ruling concluded that while Flores may have posed an immediate and significant threat of harm at some previous point during the encounter, “an exercise of force that is reasonable at one moment can become unreasonable in the next if the justification for the use of force has ceased.”

By the end of the video seen around the nation, Flores appears to surrender as he is seen stationary in the driveway, with his arms up in the air before collapsing backward onto the pavement upon being shot. The family says in their lawsuit that officers left their loved one dying without assistance and seek damages for excessive force.

A grand jury four months after the shooting declined to indict the two veteran officers.

But a federal jury will decide whether the deputies should be held civilly liable for their actions and responsible for a money judgment to Flores’ wife, three children and parents. They are expected to hear testimony from the two deputies, members of Flores’ family who were in the home that day and dueling expert witnesses.

Judge Lamberth, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, said he would assure jurors that the court will be taking all precautions necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and any related disruptions.

“We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had no problems at all,” Lamberth said of his court cases as the final pretrial hearing wrapped up. He added that Monday’s trial date was firm unless the parties settle, which there has been no indication of as of Friday afternoon.

“I’m looking forward to this,” Lamberth said.

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