License To Shoot
It may be true that cops are taking a beating these days in the court of public opinion, but juries still seem inclined to favor officers when their stories are challenged in the courtroom.
That seemed apparent last week when a federal jury declined to assess damages against an off-duty deputy who shot and injured a young motorist in a convoluted case of road rage.
The victim of the shooting, then-21-year-old Santiago Sanchez, said he brought the federal civil suit because it was the only recourse he had. The shooter in the case, L.A. County Sheriffs Deputy Robert Peacock, said he fired in self-defense after he spotted a shiny object in Sanchezs hands. That claim was echoed by police investigators and finally swayed the jury.
The specter of an adversary reaching for a shiny object is a classic defense invoked by police when an officer is challenged regarding a questionable shooting. But such assertions are rarely taken at face value in violent confrontations between private citizens. If they were, any shooting could be justified as an act of self-defense, because the only thing that mattered would be the shooters declaration that he or she felt threatened.
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Both parties in the case agreed that Peacock gave no warning before he fired, and never identified himself as an officer.
Still, it was Sanchez who was listed as the assailant in the initial police report, and Sanchez who spent more than two weeks in jail before finally being released with no charges filed against him -- evidence that the police were looking out for their own from the start, according to attorney Sam Paz, who represented Sanchez.
That guy should go to jail, Sanchez said in frustration after the verdict was returned Wednesday.
The shooting took place in Northridge in May 1996, when Sanchez pulled over to a curb and apparently cut Peacock off in rush-hour traffic. Each driver had a passenger along; each passenger offered conflicting testimony at trial. According to both sides, Peacocks passenger threw his hands up and shouted in anger as Peacock swerved past Sanchezs Chevy van. Both sides also agree that Sanchez made his big mistake by challenging Peacock, who was dressed in shorts and a tank top and driving a sports utility vehicle. When Peacock stopped at the next red light, Sanchez pulled up alongside, leaned out his window and said something aggressive, along the lines of You got a problem?
What happened next became the crux of the dispute in court. Sanchez said there was a sharp verbal response, then a moment of silence, then a gunshot that shattered two fingers on his left hand and his right wrist, splattering the van with blood and crippling his hands.
Peacocks story is a bit tougher to follow. According to a handwritten police report introduced at trial, the deputy told an investigating officer after the shooting that Sanchez and his passenger were staring at him and yelling, and that the passenger -- not Sanchez -- started to reach underneath his seat and began to fumble for something. Peacock said he drew his service weapon as a precaution. Then he saw an object which was shiny and, fearing for his life, reached across in front of his own passenger and fired a single shot into the van. That report made no reference to a physical threat from Sanchez, the driver of the van.
In a subsequent, typed police report, which listed Sanchez as the suspect and Peacock as the victim, the story changed. In that version, both Sanchez and his passenger reached down under their seats as if to retrieve a weapon. This time, Peacock observed an object in Sanchezs hands, prompting him to fire.
On the basis of that account, police tracked Sanchez, his passenger and a third friend to the hospital where Sanchez went to seek treatment for his gunshot wounds. Sanchez and his friends were handcuffed, tested for drugs (results were negative), taken to the station and interrogated for hours. A club-style steering-wheel lock was found on the floor of the van and seized as evidence. His friends were released the next morning, but Sanchez was held for 16 days on charges of assault with a deadly weapon, then released without explanation or apology.
Deputy Peacock underwent no such ordeal -- he even went home with his gun.
For the next four years, Sanchez sought an attorney who would press his claim for damages, finally hooking up with Paz and Sonia Mercado, who specialize in bringing cases against the police. At trial, Mercado focused her argument on the physical evidence, pointing out that while the van was sprayed with Sanchezs blood, not a drop landed on the steering-wheel lock Sanchez was alleged to have been holding in a threatening manner.
Peacock attorney Mildred OLinn kept her focus on the deputys account. Sanchez wanted the people in the four-by-four to believe that he had a gun -- he got what he wanted, she told the jury. Referring to the club as gun theory, OLinn said, Peacock did not have to wait until he saw a bullet coming out of the barrel before firing in self-defense.
The jury deliberated less than a day before finding against Sanchez on his federal civil rights action as well as his simple negligence claim against Peacock. Jurors declined to comment on their decision before departing the courthouse Thursday, leaving Sanchez to figure out for himself how to pay the $37,000 in medical fees it has cost to treat his hands, which were weakened and partially immobilized by the wounds. Further treatments will cost an estimated $20,000.
So was the long push to get the case before a jury worth the effort? Paz volunteered, Santiago got his day in court. He added that he intends to file a motion for a new trial. At a minimum, Paz said, Peacock wont be quite so cocky as he certainly was before.
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