SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) — The words “59 gunshots” were the first phrase in the opening statement made to a federal jury in San Francisco Tuesday by a lawyer for the parents of a 28-year-old man killed by police in 2014.
After beginning with those words, attorney Adante Pointer told the civil jury that four officers fired a total of 59 bullets within 30 seconds at Alejandro “Alex” Nieto in Bernal Heights Park in the early evening of March 21, 2014.
“It was 59 shots from those officers that took Alejandro Nieto away from his parents. They fired 59 shots at a man who did not fire a single shot,” Pointer said.
The attorney said a city medical examiner will testify that Nieto was hit by at least 10 of the bullets.
Pointer is representing Nieto’s parents, Refugio and Elvira Nieto, in a lawsuit against the officers that claims wrongful death, unconstitutional excessive force and loss of familial relationship. The suit seeks an unspecified amount of financial compensation.
Tuesday was the first day of the trial in the court of U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins. Attorneys for the Nietos and the officers gave their opening statements Tuesday afternoon following the selection of the eight-member civil jury. The trial is expected to last one and one-half weeks.
On the evening he was killed, Nieto, who lived nearby with his parents, had eaten a burrito in the park and was planning to go to his job as a security guard at a local nightclub. He was wearing a Taser stun gun, which the family’s lawyers say he needed for his job.
The four officers came to the park in response to a 911 call from a dog walker who said there was a man with a gun in the park. They encountered Nieto as he was walking down an access road, about 25 to 30 yards away from them.
City lawyers representing the officers contend that Nieto pointed the device at the officers and that they believed it was a real gun and their lives were in danger.
“He pulled out a gun with a red laser light and aimed directly at them. These officers had absolutely no reason to think the black gun-shaped object in this man’s hand was anything other than a gun,” Deputy City Attorney Margaret Baumgartner told the jury.
“These officers actually feared an imminent threat to themselves and their fellow officers and they acted appropriately,” she said.
Baumgartner said a Taser expert will testify on behalf of the city that Nieto fired the Taser three times during the 30 seconds in which the officers shot him. She said the officers believed a red laser light on the Taser was a gun sight.
Pointer said a witness who was at the park will testify that he didn’t see the Taser or other object and didn’t see red laser lights.
The defendants in the case are Lt. Jason Sawyer, who was a sergeant at the time, and Officers Nathan Chew, Roger Morse, and Richard Schiff. Sawyer and Schiff were the first officers to respond and Chew and Morse arrived as backup. All four officers fired shots.
Baumgartner said the officers continued firing during the 30 seconds because they didn’t know how many shots had hit Nieto and he allegedly continued pointing the Taser at them while lying on the ground.
Pointer said the four officers will be the first witnesses called to the stand by the Nietos’ lawyers on Wednesday. Their testimony is expected to take most of the day.
About 200 supporters of the Nieto family held a rally outside the Federal Building courthouse while the jury selection proceeded Tuesday morning.