Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and then-District Attorney Steve Cooley believed the horrific, 2010 deputy-involved shooting of a Lancaster man holding a BB gun was totally legitimate, but yesterday U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald ruled otherwise.
On Tuesday afternoon at the federal courthouse in downtown, Fitzgerald awarded $3.8 million to Angel Mendez, and $222,000 to his wife, Jennifer, for damages resulting from Fourth Amendment violations by two L.A. County Sheriff's deputies who shot the Mendezes in their makeshift home.
"I'm really happy," said Jennifer Mendez after the ruling. "Justice was served."
In April, L.A. Weekly detailed how L.A. County Sheriff's deputies Christopher Conley and Jennifer Pederson had entered the Mendezes home in October 2010 without warning or a warrant and opened fire on the couple, who were so poor they were living in a shack.
See also "Lucky to be Alive."
Jennifer Mendez, who was pregnant at the time, was struck once by a bullet, which shattered her collar bone.
Angel, who was holding a rife-style BB gun, was struck several times, which resulted in injuries so severe that his right leg had to be amputated.
Neither were wanted for any crimes, but got caught in the middle of a police search for a parolee who looked nothing like them.
Conley and Pederson were cleared of any wrongdoing by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and the L.A. County District Attorney's Office. Mendez went forward with a lawsuit, alleging use of excessive force and that his constitutional rights had been violated.
U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald agreed with Mendez and his lawyer, David Drexler.
"This is really a vindication," said Drexler after the verdict, noting that the Sheriff's Department has shown a "pattern of misconduct" and describing Mendez as a "poster child" for police brutality.
Tom Hurrell, the lawyer for Conley and Pederson, declined to comment about the verdict. The L.A. County Sheriff's Department also did not make a statement.
Fitzgerald described the Mendez shooting as a "regrettable tragedy" that was incited first by the deputies' surprise entrance into the shack.
Mendez "would not have reached for the BB gun and the entire event would not have occurred," reasoned the judge.
Fitzgerald found that Conley and Pederson had violated the Mendezes' Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force and by making an unreasonable search.
Angel Mendez, who showed up in court wearing a prosthetic leg and cried when the verdict was delivered, told the Weekly that he felt "relief."
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"I can move on with my life now," said Mendez. "I'm excited and happy that my life can move forward."
Yet, Gerald Ryckman, a partner on the case with David Drexler, thought the damage amount awarded by the judge should have been higher to signal that police brutality is not acceptable.
Describing the $3.8 million as a "tap on the [Sheriff's Department's] wrist" to the Weekly, Ryckman asked rhetorically, "What is it worth for a person to be without his leg for the rest of his life?"