By Alex Emslie
Most of the 21 gunshot wounds that killed Mario Woods came from behind him, according to a San Francisco medical examiner’s investigation into the fatal shooting released Thursday.
The medical examiner’s report includes toxicology findings indicating methamphetamine, marijuana and traces of other drugs in the 26-year-old’s blood.
“There’s an excessive number of bullets and shots that the officers fired at him,” said Oakland-based attorney Adante Pointer, who is part of a group of lawyers representing Woods’ mother in a federal civil rights lawsuit against San Francisco. “There are 21 gunshot wounds, and 20 of the 21 were essentially fired at him from behind. Only one came from the front, and that was to his abdomen.”
Pointer said that single shot in front of Woods was likely fired by an officer seen on cellphone video stepping into Woods’ path moments before five officers fired a barrage of bullets. In all, 27 shell casings were recovered from the scene, the report said.
The Dec. 2 shooting spurred massive changes within San Francisco law enforcement, including a federal review of the Police Department, a use-of-force policy overhaul and a renewed call for police to be equipped with electronic stun guns commonly known as Tasers.
San Francisco also filed its response to Gwendolyn Woods’ lawsuit Thursday, making the city’s strongest statements yet that the shooting was a legal use of deadly force.
In a surprisingly detailed introduction, the city’s answer recounts pieces of the incident that have trickled out in the months since the shooting. It says Woods was armed with a knife and had stabbed someone shortly before he was confronted by police. The stabbing victim’s DNA matched blood found on a 4-inch steak knife Woods was carrying, the filing says.
It also says Woods didn’t comply with officers’ multiple pleas to drop the knife as they escalated use of “less-lethal” force:
As the officers tried to contain Woods, back-up officers arrived with the less than lethal weapons. The officers fired bean bags at Woods and ordered him to drop the knife. Woods refused. Officers deployed pepper spray and ordered Woods to drop the knife. Woods refused. None of the alternative forms of force had any effect on Woods. The officers and bystanders told Woods to drop the knife, but he continued to refuse and would not submit to arrest.
The medical examiner’s report catalogs five bruises and scrapes attributed to those less-than-lethal rounds.
The answer concludes that officers “have no duty to retreat” and “may block the path of a fleeing suspect,” despite changes that are coming to SFPD policies following the shooting that emphasize slowing down and creating distance in response to suspects who aren’t armed with guns.
“The officers’ actions were well within the settled parameters regarding the use of lethal force by police officers as spelled out by the United States Supreme Court,” the city’s answer says. “When a suspect refuses to disarm and refuses to surrender peacefully, officers may use such force as is necessary to protect the public and themselves and to effect the arrest.”
Pointer said neither Woods’ alleged criminal history, nor blood work showing an intoxicating level of methamphetamine, could have factored into the officers’ decision to use lethal force the moment they began firing at Woods.
“What does inform that decision, which is something they don’t want to deal with, is the video,” Pointer said. “If you review the video, this man’s arms were at his side, and at no time was he lunging at officers.”
Pointer said Woods was “exhibiting signs of being in some sort of mental distress, whether that be organic or caused by narcotic,” and police should be able to effect a response, absent a deadly threat “without needlessly spilling blood.”
A representative from the San Francisco Police Officers Association, which strongly criticized a unanimous resolution from city legislators declaring July 22 “Mario Woods Remembrance Day,” said the union had received the medical examiner’s report but had no comment at this time.
POA President Martin Halloran described Woods as a “convicted felon, validated gang member, indiscriminate predator, who allegedly attempted to murder an innocent victim in the Bayview,” in a Feb. 1 written critique of the day of remembrance.
Read the medical examiner’s report below. Read San Francisco’s answer to Gwendolyn Woods’ civil rights complaint here.