San Francisco

Trial Begins in Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against San Francisco Police Accused of Killing Alex Nieto

About 150 protesters gathered outside court as jury selection began.

The family of a man shot dead by San Francisco police officers is taking the city to federal court.

The trial began in San Francisco Tuesday on a wrongful death lawsuit filed against four officers by the parents of Alejandro "Alex" Nieto, who was killed two years ago.

A jury seated in U.S. District Court will decide whether the officers acted reasonably when they fatally shot the 28-year-old man in Bernal Heights Park shortly after 7 p.m. on March 21, 2014.

Police, however, justify their actions saying that the officers feared for their lives. They claim to have mistaken a Taser that Nieto was holding for a gun.

While court proceedings got underway inside the courthouse Tuesday, chanting, drums and demonstrations descended on the plaza outside. Nieto's parents, Refugio and Elvira Nieto, joined nearly 150 protesters at the "Justice for Alex Nieto" rally before going into court. 

Members of the Aztec community performed a ritualistic dance to "stomp out the evil spirits that are full of lies and hatred," while Nieto's friends and activists took turns speaking out against what they believe is police brutality and excessive use of force by officers.

"This is a victory because we've gotten to the trial stage," said organizer Benjamin Bac Sierra. "Usually, our voices are not even heard."

The officers — Lt. Jason Sawyer, who was a sergeant at the time, and Officers Nathan Chew, Roger Morse, and Richard Schiff — were responding to a report of a man with a gun.

Nieto, who lived nearby with his parents and was a student at City College of San Francisco, had been eating a burrito at the park before going to his job as a security guard at a local nightclub.

He was wearing a Taser stun gun, which the family's lawyers say was licensed and needed for his job.

The police allege 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."

Nieto was struck by at least 10 bullets, according to an autopsy report by the San Francisco medical examiner's office.

NBC Bay Area
Alex Nieto, 28, was shot dead on March 1, 2014 after police allegedly mistook a Taser that he was carrying for a gun.

"That's illogical for us to believe," Bac Sierra said. "The physical evidence will show that Alex Nieto had his hands in his pockets and that he did nothing wrong."

Nieto's parents contend there is no evidence that he said anything to the officers before the initial volley of shots rang out or that he threatened them or pointed an object at them.

There "was no justification for this unwarranted use of deadly force," the parents' lawsuit alleges.

The shooting led to protest marches and rallies in the city over the past two years.

Jury selection in the court of U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins is expected to be completed in the morning and opening statements are slated to take place Tuesday afternoon. The trial is estimated to last 10 days.

The parents filed the civil rights lawsuit in August 2014.

After having two claims dismissed in pretrial proceedings, the lawsuit now contains three claims: 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.

The lawsuit asks the jury to award an unspecified amount of financial compensation for lost wages and funeral expenses as well as an additional punitive financial award.

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