RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) – Two California police officers acted within the scope of their training when they shot and killed Matthew Tucker after responding to his family’s call seeking emergency support for him, an attorney for the officers said Tuesday during opening statements in their federal wrongful death jury trial.
On May 4, 2016, Tucker, who was 18 at the time and lived with his family in the city of Temecula in Riverside County, told his family he was feeling depressed.
When Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputies Michael Hamilton and Rosa Calderon arrived separately at the home, Tucker’s mother, Jenny Tucker, told them her son was depressed, had a knife and was seeking “suicide by cop.”
The family’s attorney, Darryl Exum, said in court that Jenny Tucker guided officers through her home until they found Matthew in the garage.
The legality and efficacy of the officers’ subsequent actions will be argued in days to come before U.S District Judge Jesus Bernal, but the result was solemnly clear; Tucker would be killed that night in his garage from the officers’ bullets.
Exum told jurors that Tucker could have been saved if officers had called crisis intervention experts or used non-lethal weapons to subdue him.
“When police don’t follow their own rules, people die,” Exum said, adding that officers have a duty “not to oblige” a person’s desire to die from an interaction with law enforcement.
Exum said Calderon and Hamilton, now a sergeant in the department, violated Tucker’s Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure when they shot and killed him.
Tony Sain of Manning & Kass, an attorney for the officers, said their actions were in line with their training and that they only shot to kill Tucker to protect their lives.
Sain had the 12-inch knife from the scene shown to jurors and said Tucker could have crossed the 15- to 17-foot distance between himself and officers “in a split second” with the knife in his hand.
“Suicidal subjects can jump to homicidal in the blink of an eye,” Sain said. “Subjects seeking ‘suicide by cop’ are a deadly threat.”
Officers didn’t shoot Tucker initially, even with guns drawn, and tried to deescalate the situation by asking him to put down the knife, Sain said.
Sain moved his body around to show the ways Tucker bounced like a “boxer” with a knife in his hand. He said Tucker later made a football player-like run toward the officers, which prompted them to shoot.
“Tucker forced them to shoot,” Sain said. “At that moment, it was shoot or be killed.”
Exum said the officers created the conditions for Tucker’s death because they didn’t clear his relatives from the home and cornered him in the garage.
“They know from their training they have no choice but to kill him if they corner him,” Exum said.
In court papers, Exum described the officers’ actions as “excessive and objectively unreasonable” and said better coordination was needed before entering the home.
Exum said Riverside County Coroner Mark Fajardo’s testimony that Tucker was shot in the back proves he was not posing a threat to officers.
Exum said the department showed no regard for the grief Tucker’s family was feeling after the shooting, leaving blood from Tucker’s body in the garage for days after investigators had completed their work.
Riverside County, located about an hour south of Los Angeles, is a named defendant in the case along with Calderon and Hamilton.
Tucker’s parents, Jenny and Shawn Tucker, filed the complaint on behalf of their son in Oct. 2016. They seek compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorney’s fees, as well as funeral and burial expenses.