By Alex Emslie
An eight-member jury found no wrongdoing Thursday on the part of four San Francisco police officers who fatally shot a man in Bernal Heights Park two years ago.
The verdict in the federal civil rights trial marks the end of almost two years of litigation over the high-profile officer-involved shooting of Alejandro “Alex” Nieto on March 21, 2014.
Defendants Richard Schiff, Jason Sawyer, Roger Morse and Nate Chew testified that Nieto pointed a Taser stun gun at them and, believing it was a handgun, they fired at him until he stopped pointing it. Schiff and Sawyer reloaded during what plaintiffs’ attorneys characterized as a “one-sided firefight,” and the four officers shot a total of 59 times, according to the district attorney’s investigation of the shooting, which also cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.
“It’s a tragic event to lose a child in any way that that ever happens,” Deputy City Attorney Margaret Baumgartner told reporters after the verdict. “But my officers didn’t violate the Constitution when they used force in this situation, and the jury obviously found that Mr. Nieto had what looked like a gun in his hands.”
Three of the officers testified that they saw a red laser sight coming from Nieto’s Taser, and they continued to fire as long as they saw it — and what they thought was a gun — pointed at them. Morse said he never saw the laser sight, but he believed Nieto was pointing and firing a gun at him.
The jury deliberated for a total of about eight hours between the end of closing arguments on Wednesday and delivering its verdict Thursday afternoon.
Nieto’s parents were devastated as they left the courthouse, according to their attorney and supporters. They did not stop to speak with reporters gathering outside.
“Alex was a loving human being,” said Ely Flores, who added that he’d been a close friend of Nieto’s for several years. “Alex was a gentle Buddhist, and Alex had a degree in the criminal justice system. Alex was on his way to become a probation officer, and he was brutally killed by the SFPD, somebody he looked up to. This is irony.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney Adante Pointer said he is “considering all our legal options,” but stopped short of promising an appeal.
“It’s a sad day for my clients, the Nietos, but it’s an even worse day for the city of San Francisco,” he said, adding that he was surprised physical evidence and the testimony of a civilian witness didn’t sway the jury.
Antonio Theodore testified during the trial that he saw the shooting from a bluff overlooking an access road in Bernal Heights Park. He said Nieto’s hands never left his pockets during the shooting, and officers didn’t give him time to respond to commands before they opened fire.
But Theodore also said during cross-examination that his memory was hazy and that he had become an alcoholic since the shooting.
Pointer said that a bone fragment discovered in Nieto’s left jacket pocket and the fact that his Taser was discovered in its “off” position backed up Theodore’s account of the shooting.
“They claim a man’s hand was in front of him, but yet his wrist bone is in his pocket,” Pointer said. “They claim a Taser was on and pointed at them and fired at them, but not a single officer says that they saw it fired.”
The verdict comes as the San Francisco Police Department is besieged by scandals involving fatal shootings and racism. The jury in the Nieto trial was barred from hearing testimony about additional high-profile shootings following the incident. The most recent fatal SFPD shooting of a suspect, that of Mario Woods on Dec. 2, prompted a review by the U.S. Department of Justice and sweeping reforms to the department’s use-of-force policies. Part of the changes to SFPD use of force is to discourage multiple officers from firing a large number of gunshots at a suspect.
“It is harder to present these cases to a jury because of what’s been reported in the press about other events,” Baumgartner said, adding that jurors were required to focus only on the Nieto shooting. “This was a singular event by these particular officers who had to make an instantaneous decision about what to do, and this jury found that they acted appropriately.”
Nietos’ supporters said they would channel their efforts into other cases alleging misconduct by the SFPD.