Nieto verdict could further inflame tense relations between SFPD, community

The federal courthouse in San Francisco offered two strikingly different scenes Thursday afternoon: one was a respectful victory; the other an anguished loss.

As the lawyers for four San Francisco police officers who shot and killed Alex Nieto in March 2014 spoke of their relief after their clients were cleared, family and friends of Nieto decried the verdict and pledged their continued fight for justice.

The eight-person jury — several of whom said their decision was not easy because of the contradictory evidence — deliberated for than less a day after closing arguments concluded in the wrongful death suit filed by the family of Nieto against the officers and the City of San Francisco.

The verdict comes at a tense time in police-community relations. The December 2015 death of Mario Woods by police has left officers and city leaders on different fronts. While a federal review that many have called a smoke screen is underway into the department, city leaders have also begun pushing for reforms around the use of force.

Supporters of Alex Nieto — who planned to hold an event at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Mission Cultural Center at 2868 Mission St. — vowed Thursday’s verdict would inflame already tense relations in San Francisco.

Soon after the verdict was delivered early Thursday afternoon in Judge Nathanael Cousins’ U.S. District courtroom, quiet smiles came from the officers and their defense team and vocal anger and tears came from the friends and family of Nieto.

Nieto was fatally shot in Bernal Heights Park on March 21, 2014, after he was told by the officers to put his hands up and he pulled a stun gun the officers mistook for a gun. Police opened fire with more than 50 rounds because they believed their lives were in danger, the jury ruled.

Still, there were a number of inconsistencies when it came to the story as told by police. Most importantly was a witness for the plaintiffs who saw the incident and testified that Nieto did not pull out his stun gun or threaten police. At issue was his memory, which he said on the stand was cloudy.

Over the course of the trial, the jury heard from the four officers who fired their guns, civilian witnesses to the shooting and a handful of experts — medical, ballistic and tactical — whose opinions and rulings were shaped and molded by each side in the case.

Lawyers who represented the four officers in the case — Jason Sawyer, Roger Morse, Richard Schiff and Nathan Chew — said their clients “are relieved.”

Deputy City Attorney Margaret Baumgartner said it has been hard for “her cops” to sit in the courtroom and have their decision making questioned. Ultimately, the most valuable piece of evidence was the Taser clock, she said.

“[The Taser clock] proves absolutely that Nieto pulled that trigger while he was right in front of those police officers,” Baumgartner said outside the courthouse, in contradiction to claims made by the defense in the case.

Friends of Nieto as well as his family lawyers called the verdict one more example of the impunity police have when they use violence against people of color.

“SFPD can shoot 59 bullets and get away with it,” said Oscar Salinas, one of a handful of angry Nieto supporters outside the courthouse Thursday.

Adante Pointer, who led the team of lawyers for the Nieto family, said in a comment to the San Francisco Examiner that this is a “sad day for the Nietos, [and a] worse day for San Francisco.”

After the verdict he said that this is just one of several cases in which the San Francisco police have allegedly used excessive force.

“This is not the only case I think they have killed someone unlawfully,” he said. “SFPD is on the map.”

Ely Flores, a friend of Nieto, said he was angry, nervous and sad when he heard the verdict. But he said the trial was also a kind of vindication. Telling his late friend’s story in court was a victory in itself. Now, he said, it’s up to the public to decide on whether it was right or not.

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