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Jury Awards $5.7 Million to Gangbanger Paralyzed in Police Shooting

Jury doesn't hear key details that might have exonerated officers.

by
Jack Dunphy

Bio

September 29, 2012 - 12:24 pm
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Engage with me, if you will, a hypothetical. You have been summoned for jury duty in federal court for the Central District of California, an area that includes Los Angeles. All of the advice you have received from friends and coworkers on how to avoid actually serving on a jury has proved fruitless, and you are seated with seven of your fellow citizens to hear evidence in a trial involving a claim of an unjustified shooting by Los Angeles police officers.

The plaintiff in the case is one sure to arouse sympathy in any but the most cold-hearted person. He is young, and in fact was still a teenager when, in 2005, he was shot by LAPD officers.  He sits in court a pathetic figure, confined to a wheelchair since the shooting, paralyzed in both legs and left with only very limited use of his arms. He ran because he was scared, you are told. He was so unlucky as to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when two police officers, without justification, shot him and left him in the enfeebled condition you see before you.

You and your fellow jurors deliberate and soon agree that the plaintiff has been wronged, that he has suffered grievously at the hands of the police and is entitled to compensation for his medical expenses, his lost future earnings, and for his pain and suffering.

You are excused from your service with thanks from the judge, who commends you for fulfilling your civic duty.  You leave the courthouse confident that justice has been well served and that while your decision cannot restore what the plaintiff has lost, you have provided him, to the extent you are able, with the means to obtain the medical care he will need for the rest of his life.

Now imagine learning that you had been hoodwinked, that you did not hear all of the relevant facts of the case, chief among which are that the plaintiff for whom you felt so much sympathy was fleeing the scene of a drive-by shooting when the police began chasing him, a charge to which he pleaded no-contest and served time in prison.  Also withheld from your consideration was the testimony of those who would have told you the plaintiff did indeed have a gun when he ran from the van and that he discarded it before being shot.

Do you still think justice has been well served?

Meet Robert Contreras, who today is 26 and a near-quadriplegic, but who one night in September 2005 was 19 and the very picture of health when he and two fellow members of his street gang loaded up in a van and set off to settle scores with a rival gang in South-Central Los Angeles. They chose some victims standing in the rival gang’s territory and opened fire from the van, bringing a police response that was perhaps more swift than they had anticipated.  LAPD officers Mario Flores and Julio Benavides were directed by witnesses to the fleeing van and a brief car chase ensued. Contreras and his two comrades abandoned the van and fled on foot, with Contreras taking what would turn out to be the last run of his life.

The two officers chased Contreras down a dark driveway, at which point Contreras is alleged to have turned toward them with something in his hand. Believing Contreras was about to shoot at them, they fired, hitting Contreras with several bullets to the side and back. The object in Contreras’s hand turned out to be a cell phone, and though the officers said they had seen a gun in Contreras’s hand as he fled the van, no gun was found despite an extensive search of the area.

In 2009, Contreras pleaded no-contest to attempted murder and served two years of a seven-year sentence.  Upon his release from prison he filed his lawsuit alleging that the officers had used excessive force and had violated his civil rights. In a trial held last February, the jury found that the officers had used excessive force.

The issue of compensation to be awarded to Contreras was not put before that jury, leaving it to the parties to negotiate the dollar figure.  Lawyers for the city and the officers agreed on the amount of $4.5 million, but by an 8-4 vote the L.A. city council rejected the deal and chose to take the question of damages to a second trial.  The second jury awarded Contreras $5.7 million, to be extracted from the taxpayers of Los Angeles.

Based on rulings by District Court Judge Steven V. Wilson, the original jury did not hear testimony regarding Contreras’s no-contest plea to attempted murder or his membership in a notoriously violent street gang.  The judge also excluded testimony that would have informed jurors that Contreras did have a gun at the time he fled from the van.

Judge Wilson was appointed to the federal bench in 1985 by Ronald Reagan, a fact that does not lend itself to simplistic arguments about a liberal judge going soft on some thug he has found to have been oppressed. Still, while there may have been legal grounds for excluding evidence that was inconvenient, to say the least, for Mr. Contreras, the jury in the first trial should have been able to overcome their sympathies and find for the officers.

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