Gwen Woods, mother of Mario Woods, offers her condolences to Matsuko Adachi at a vigil in honor of her husband, the late Public Defender Jeff Adachi on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Mario Woods police shooting lawsuit settles shortly before trial was set to begin

Widely seen on social media, Woods’ death galvanized public opinion and triggered major reforms

The mother of Mario Woods has reached a settlement agreement with San Francisco to end the wrongful death lawsuit she filed against five officers for fatally shooting her son in the Bayview in 2015.

Details of the tentative agreement made Tuesday have not been released, but civil rights attorney John Burris said Gwen Woods is satisfied with the terms of the deal, which was reached just days before the case was scheduled for trial.

“She is relieved,” Burris said. “It was quite an ordeal for her.”

Perhaps no recent police shooting in San Francisco has been more controversial than the killing of Mario Woods.

Building on momentum from the Black Lives Matter movement and a racist police texting scandal, the December 2015 shooting led to a federal review of the San Francisco Police Department and, eventually, the resignation of a police chief.

For former Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represented the Bayview at the time, the shooting may be the most important criminal justice event to have occurred in San Francisco in years.

“It made us question what some consider a problematic police culture of cover ups and bias,” Cohen said. “It also exposed deep fractures in the African American community’s relationship with police for many San Franciscans, elevating our city to the national stage at a moment when no one wanted to stand in that spotlight.”

But the shooting never made it into the courtroom.

Last year, District Attorney George Gascon declined to file criminal charges against the five officers who surrounded and shot Mario Woods as he walked on a Bayview sidewalk with a knife in his hand.

Gwen Woods filed the lawsuit in federal court days after the shooting, seeking monetary damages.

The City Attorney’s Office represented officers Charles August, Nicholas Cuevas, Winson Seto, Antonio Santos and Scott Phillips in the case.

John Cote, a spokesperson for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, offered condolences to the loved ones of Mario Woods in a statement.

“Police officers are often forced into difficult situations and have to make split-second decisions in dangerous and evolving circumstances,” Cote said. “In this case, the officers’ response to a risky situation was consistent with their training and in accordance with the law.”

“This settlement allows us to reach a resolution without the need for a trial,” he said. “Hopefully it will help bring closure for all involved.”

Burris declined to discuss the arguments his attorneys planned to make at trial until the settlement agreement is finalized.

The agreement needs further approval, including from the Board of Supervisors.

“Gwendolyn Woods had a very strong wrongful death case based on the videos,” said Deputy Public Defender Rebecca Young, co-chair of the Public Defender’s Racial Justice Committee. “Of all the outrageous and unjustified shootings of suspects in this city, the killing of Mario Woods qualifies as an execution by firing squad.”

Multiple cell phone cameras recorded on Dec. 2, 2015 as the officers shot Mario Woods, a 26-year-old suspect in a nearby stabbing, after attempting to make him drop the knife by using bean-bag guns and pepper spray.

Footage of the shooting went viral on social media and spurred outrage.

Less than a month later, then-Police Chief Greg Suhr asked the U.S. Department of Justice to review the SFPD. After two more controversial shootings and a high-profile hunger strike, Suhr resigned in May 2016.

The federal review resulted in 272 recommendations for police reform that are still being implemented today.

Despite the fallout, in May 2018 Gascon found that it was not unreasonable for the officers to shoot Mario Woods as he moved toward officer August and the civilians standing near a Muni bus behind him.

The officers argued they acted in defense of themselves and others.

But attorneys for Gwen Woods argue that her son was attempting to walk away from police when one of the officers moved into his path. “Mr. Woods did not pose a direct and immediate threat to anyone and had his hands by his side,” they wrote in a complaint against the officers.

In recent weeks, attorneys on both sides have argued over what evidence jurors would hear at the trial that was supposed to begin April 4.

On March 14, U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick ruled that jurors would be able to hear bystanders shouting “drop the knife,” “are you fucking kidding me” and “that was unnecessary” in videos, despite objections from the City Attorney’s Office.

Orrick also ruled that the jury would hear evidence about Mario Woods being on methamphetamine and cannabis when he died, as well as some evidence of his criminal history.

Mario Woods was on parole when he died for a 2010 conviction. He had pleaded guilty to robbery and participating in a criminal street gang.

In court records, the City Attorney’s Office indicated that it planned to argue Mario Woods was evading arrest because he did not want to return to jail for a parole violation or for allegedly stabbing a man.

But Orrick decided to exclude evidence of Woods’ prior gang affiliations.

Woods was listed as a member of the Oakdale Mob in a gang injunction the City Attorney’s Office obtained in 2009. He was removed from the list after his death as the office began to clear names last year.

Orrick also blocked each side from using “inflammatory language” to describe the shooting.

Attorneys for Gwen Woods would not have been able to use words like “carnage,” “execution,” “assassinated,” “murder” and “gunned down,” while the City Attorney’s Office would not have been able to use “brandished” or “lunged” during opening statements.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

This story has been updated to include additional information.

S.F. Examiner Staff Writer Joshua Sabatini contributed to this report.

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