Jurors hear opening statements in Nieto civil rights trial

Attorneys for the family of Alejandro “Alex” Nieto and The City told jurors two separate accounts Tuesday of what led to San Francisco police killing Nieto as dusk fell on Bernal Heights Park two years ago.

The civil rights trial against the four officers who shot Nieto dead on March 21, 2014, began with the selection of eight jurors inside the Phillip Burton Federal Building, where that same morning about 200 demonstrators expressed their support for the Nieto family.

By the close of the trial, jurors will either be convinced 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.

“They were there to protect each other and to protect the public,” Baumgartner said. Morse and Chew, who arrived after Sawyer and Schiff already started firing, “drove into the firefight because that was their job to do that.”

All four officers sat in the courtroom in black and gray suits Tuesday, as heated back and forths between attorneys broke out between and after opening statements. On the other side of the aisle, Refugio Nieto, the father of the deceased, flinched his head and looked the other way when a bloody crime scene photo showed his son’s body. He was accompanied by his wife, Elvira Nieto.

In the morning as the trial began, Benjamin Bac Sierra, who has acted as a spokesperson for the Nieto family since the shooting, led demonstrators as they honored Nieto in the courtyard out front of the federal building.

“We feel that the evidence, both the physical and the logic of the case is…irrefutable,” Bac Sierra said. “I think it would be unreasonable for any juror to look at the evidence of the case and think otherwise.”

Refugio Nieto, Alex Nieto's father, talks with supports of Justice for Alex Nieto before the federal trial at the federal court building in San Francisco on Tuesday, March 1, 2016. (Emma Chiang/Special to SF Examiner)

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Refugio Nieto, Alex Nieto's father, talks with supporters of Alex Nieto before the federal trial at the federal court building in San Francisco on Tuesday, March 1, 2016. (Emma Chiang/Special to SF Examiner)

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