Crime & Justice

Civil suit tied to Anaheim police shooting death to get new trial

Orange County prosecutors Tuesday said an Anaheim police officer was legally justified when he shot and killed Joel Acevedo, 22, last year. The shooting of Acevedo and Manuel Diaz sparked violent protests in the city. (File photo: Genevieve Huizar, mother of Manuel Diaz, waits to speak at the Anaheim City Council meeting on August 8, 2012. After an unarmed Diaz was killed by Anaheim police in July, the community erupted in protest).
Orange County prosecutors Tuesday said an Anaheim police officer was legally justified when he shot and killed Joel Acevedo, 22, last year. The shooting of Acevedo and Manuel Diaz sparked violent protests in the city. (File photo: Genevieve Huizar, mother of Manuel Diaz, waits to speak at the Anaheim City Council meeting on August 8, 2012. After an unarmed Diaz was killed by Anaheim police in July, the community erupted in protest).
Bear Guerra/KPCC

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A civil lawsuit against an officer involved in the fatal police shooting of an unarmed man in Anaheim will be retried in federal court after a federal appeals court ruled that inflammatory and irrelevant evidence wrongly influenced a jury that cleared the officer of wrongdoing.

“I just feel very blessed that they’ve seen the truth and that we have another chance to fight for justice,” said Genevieve Huizar, the mother of Diaz who filed the civil rights lawsuit.
 
A spokesperson for the city of Anaheim said the city was disappointed in the ruling and would see the case through the legal process but could not comment further.
 
Huizar claims Bennallack used excessive deadly force when he shot Diaz in his backside and on the side of his head. Diaz had been running from police after officers attempted to question him. 

During the chase, officers said they saw Diaz reach for his waistband and throw something. No weapon was found on or near Diaz. 

The lawsuit named Bennallack and the city of Anaheim as defendants and sought damages between $3 million and $5 million. In March 2014, a federal civil jury found that the force used by officer Bennallack was not excessive or unreasonable. Huizar appealed the verdict to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In its opinion, the appeals court said the jury was exposed during the trial to “troubling evidence” relating to Diaz’s gang membership that was not linked to the question at hand -- whether the force Bennallack used was justified and reasonable.

“The jury was exposed to a copious amount of inflammatory and prejudicial evidence with little (if any) relevance,” wrote Circuit Judge John B. Owens in the opinion.

The appellate court suggested cases like these should be separated: one trial should determine liability; the other should deal with damages due so that only relevant evidence is introduced to juries that sometimes have trouble compartmentalizing the two issues.

“Police shootings are often the most difficult – and divisive – cases that our legal system and society encounter,” the opinion states. “Wrapped in strong emotion and often opaque case law, they can perplex even our most experienced trial judges, like the judge in this case.”

The case will be sent back to federal district court in Santa Ana for retrial.

The fatal shooting of Diaz happened in a year where the number of Anaheim officer-involved shootings was particularly high. Here are the number of officer-involved shootings for the department, according to a July 2016 audit by a police oversight consultant that the city hired:

2012 – nine officer-involved shootings

2013 – one officer-involved shooting

2014 – three officers-involved shootings

2015 – four officers-involved shootings

2016 (Jan. to Apr.) – three officer-involved shootings

 
Diaz was shot and killed during a foot chase. Police oversight consultant Michael Gennaco recommended in a report last year that the Anaheim Police Department develop a “rigorous foot pursuit policy that sets out with clarity whether and how to conduct foot pursuit.”
 
Police Chief Raul Quezada declined to adopt the recommendation in May of 2015. He wrote in a response to the audit that "a rigorous or restrictive foot pursuit policy would impede an officer’s ability to use discretion and judgement and act in a manner that puts public safety above all else." The department issued training bulletins with guidelines and factors to consider when engaging in a foot chase.