Two years after Bernal neighbor Alex Nieto was killed in an SFPD officer-involved shooting on Bernal Hill, the Nieto family’s civil trial against the officers who participated in the incident got underway yesterday in a Federal courtroom.
The San Francisco Examiner covered the opening day of the trial:
The trial that will either convince jurors that Nieto was pointing a stun gun at officers when he was shot, as police claim, or that he had his hands in his pockets as he walked down Bernal Hill, as Nieto’s family contends.
Deputy City Attorney Margaret Baumgartner, who is representing the officers involved, aims to prove the former.
“They kept shooting at the man with the gun because he kept aiming at them,” Baumgartner told jurors during her opening statement. “It was only after they kicked the gun out of those man’s hands that they realized that gun was a Taser.”
Baumgartner said The City has physical evidence, including records from the internal clock inside Nieto’s stun gun which logged the weapon’s trigger as being pulled three times during the same time that the officers opened fire, to prove that the officers used reasonable force.
But Adante Pointer, an attorney for the Nieto family, told jurors they will hear testimony from a witness who saw Nieto with his hands down when officers Jason Sawyer, Roger Morse, Richard Schiff and Nathan Chew shot at him 59 times.
While Antonio Theodore, the witness, described Nieto as walking “pretty cool and casual” toward officers in a deposition, taken about a year and a half after Nieto’s death, Baumgartner on Tuesday said that Nieto was “marching purposefully toward them on this clear open road.”
Baumgartner also emphasized to jurors that the officers shot Nieto because they feared for their lives and were responding to an emergency call of a man with a gun.
We attended the tense community meeting where SFPD Chief Suhr revealed that Nieto’s taser was shaped like a handgun. We criticized the slow pace of the official investigation, as well as the unconscionable vandalism of the memorial Nieto’s family and friends created for him on Bernal Hill, and we’ve tried to describe the unimaginable anguish and heartbreak Nieto’s parents must endure since their son was taken from them.
The sad reality, however, is that without video evidence, we may never know what really happened on Bernal Hill that night. Both the SFPD and the Nieto family have strong incentives to spin the facts. While the SFPD and DA’s version of events should be approached with suspicion, it will be interesting to see how credible the Nieto family’s new witnesses are, and if they add to our understanding of what happened that night. The San Francisco district attorney’s must-read final report on the incident tells a coherent story about how the tragedy unfolded, while the family’s version of event routinely omits facts which suggest that Nieto was experiencing psychological difficulties and violent outbursts at the time. That said, it’s also not hard to imagine how the addition of just a few new facts might flip the balance of evidence in the Nieto family’s favor.