SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Jurors heard opening statements Tuesday in the civil trial of four San Francisco police officers who shot Alex Nieto to death two years ago, claiming they mistook the 28-year-old student and security guard's Taser for a gun.
Protesters rallied outside the Federal Courthouse as the trial got under way, chanting "Justice for Alex Nieto."
Nieto's family sued the city, Police Chief Greg Suhr and Officers Jason Sawyer, Roger Morse, Richard Schiff and Nathan Chew in August 2014, alleging wrongful death, excessive force and civil rights violations. A judge rejected the city's request for summary judgment in November last year.
Nieto was killed in Bernal Heights Park on March 21, 2014. The City College student was on his way to his job as a security guard at a restaurant and sat on a park bench to eat a burrito. Someone called police to report an armed man, though Nieto actually had a Taser on his hip, which he carried legally for work.
Police say Nieto defied orders and pointed the Taser at them when they approached.
His parents doubt the police story, and say an independent investigation contradicts it as well.
"Mr. and Mrs. Nieto are here today because of 59 shots fired at their son, killing him, taking him away from them," the Nietos' attorney Adante Pointer told the eight-member jury Tuesday.
The city's attorney, Margaret Baumgartner, told the jury a different story. She said a park visitor had called police to report a man carrying a gun on his hip, behaving strangely and "shadow boxing."
When police arrived, Nieto "marched purposefully toward them," refused to show his hands, pointed a weapon with a red laser sight at them and replied, "No, show me your hands," Baumgartner said.
"It was not until this gun was kicked out of this man's hand that they realized it was a Taser," Baumgartner said.
But Pointer told the jury they will see and hear evidence that the officers' story doesn't add up. A witness will testify that Nieto had his hands in his pockets when he was shot, and no one else can corroborate the claim that Nieto pointed his Taser at officers after he fell to the ground in a hail of gunfire, Pointer said.
"There's no compelling physical evidence to corroborate the story that Alex somehow maintained the position of pointing something out while receiving gun shots from his temple down to his leg," the civil rights attorney said.
Baumgartner countered that the jury will hear from an expert witness who analyzed Nieto's Taser and found its trigger had been pulled three times during the altercation.
She said Nieto did not "react the way you would expect" someone hit with gunfire to act: that he assumed a "prone tactical position" on the ground as he pointed his weapon at the officers.
"These officers had no reason to think the black gun-shaped object was anything other than a gun," Baumgartner said.
Pointer showed the jury a photograph of Nieto's body sprawled on the asphalt after the shooting, with a burrito on the ground by his feet.
Pointer said Nieto was a source of pride for his parents, Refugio and Elvira Nieto.
"[Alex] had attended city college, had gone further in his education than either one of them," Pointer said. "That was something they took a lot of joy in, but the evidence will show it was 59 shots that took Alex away from his parents."
The four officers were expected to begin testifying on Wednesday.
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