A federal jury in San Francisco Thursday exonerated four police officers who fatally shot 28-year-old Alejandro "Alex" Nieto in a city park in 2014, ruling the officers did not use unconstitutional excessive force.
The jury acted on a wrongful death civil rights lawsuit filed by Nieto's parents following his death in Bernal Heights Park on March 21, 2014. One juror told the San Francisco Chronicle there was not one piece of evidence that swayed them to side police, rather it was "all of it."
The news was a blow for the Nieto family, attorney Adante Pointer said afterward.
"The verdict was not what the Nietos deserve, and it’s not what the city deserves,” Pointer told the Chronicle. “What you have here is a green light to fire 59 shots in a public park. It’s a sad day for the city and county of San Francisco.”
But the attorney representing San Francisco thought the verdict was just.
“Everybody here, including the officers, understands that the Nietos must be very sad to lose a child like that,” Deputy City Attorney Margaret Baumgartner told the Chronicle outside the courthouse. “But my officers didn’t do anything wrong.”
In a civil case, jurors need to find the plaintiff's claims are more probably true than not, unlike a criminal trial, where the evidence must be beyond a reasonable doubt.
Closing arguments were given on Wednesday in U.S. District Court, following a federal civil trial that began March 1, two years and 13 days since the 28-year-old was killed by more than 10 bullets, fired by four police officers.
Police were sent to the scene after a dogwalker called 911 reporting on a "young Latino working-class man" walking around in Bernal Heights, his family alleges. Nieto was a student at City College and was going to his job as a security guard, which is why he was carrying a licensed Taser attached to his hip, his family said.
San Francisco police have justifed their actions saying they mistook the Taser for a gun.
Nieto's family sued: Lt. Jason Sawyer, who was a sergeant at the time, and officers Nathan Chew, Roger Morse, and Richard Schiff.
But the police argue that the first two officers on the scene shouted, "Show me your hands," at Nieto and that he answered, "No, show me your hands," and then pulled what appeared to be a gun with a red laser light from his holster and pointed it directly at them.
City lawyers representing the officers wrote in a court filing, "The officers shot at Nieto, believing that their lives were in danger, to protect themselves and their fellow officers. Officers are trained that they shoot until the deadly threat to which they are reacting is no longer a deadly threat."
But Nieto's parents contend there is no evidence that their son said anything to the officers before the initial volley of shots rang out or that he threatened them or pointed an object at them.
The lawsuit asked the jury to award an unspecified amount of financial compensation for lost wages and funeral expenses as well as an additional punitive financial award.
Like Mario Woods, a 26-year-old African-American man with a knife killed by San Francisco police in December 2015, Nieto's supporters join a chorus Black Lives Matter activists who argue that police use excessive force against people of color.
A protest and Aztec dance circle marked the courthouse when Nieto's trial began.
"This is a victory because we've gotten to the trial stage," organizer Benjamin Bac Sierra said at the time. "Usually, our voices are not even heard."
The suit had claimed: Use of excessive force, denial of the parents' right to a familial relationship in violation of the U.S. Constitution, and wrongful death under California law.
Bay City News contributed to this report.