Alex Nieto civil trial begins amid protest

Fifty-nine gunshots.

The first words of the opening statement of attorney Adante Pointer — representing the family of Alejandro “Alex” Nieto — began civil proceedings in the wrongful death civil trial for Nieto, as attorneys and a courtroom full of observers in San Francisco federal court heard emotional opening arguments Tuesday:

“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.”

Nieto’s parents, Refugio and Elvira, are suing The City and four of its police officers accused of gunning down their 28-year-old son last March in Bernal Heights Park. Their suit against the officers claims wrongful death, unconstitutional excessive force and loss of familial relationship. The suit seeks an unspecified amount of financial compensation.

Outside the Phillip Burton Federal Building on Golden Gate Avenue, protesters gathered at 8 a.m. for a rally organized by Benjamin Bac Sierra, a founding supporter of the Justice for Alex Nieto Coalition. Sierra spoke at the rally, voicing his and many of the protestors’ opinions:

“I know that there is absolutely no way that that man [Nieto] who had never been arrested in his entire life pointed a Taser at police. We will prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Alex Nieto was unlawfully killed by the San Francisco Police Department.”

The civil trial got off to a measured start, with jury selection taking most of the day. Attorneys for both sides asked thirty potential jurors questions to gauge how they would perform on a jury. Potential jurors were asked if they had past experiences with the SFPD, if they knew anyone who was a police officer, and if any prior juries they had been on were able to reach verdicts.

The mostly white, suburban, older females were whittled down to eight, ending up with six women — five white — and two men.

After jury selection, the plaintiffs and the defense delivered opening statements in front of a courtroom packed mostly with Nieto supporters. A translator aided the Nieto family who sat in the front row looking on in tears, becoming visibly upset during the defense statement, and at a picture showing Nieto’s dead body.

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.

Opening statements served as an outline for what each side expect the evidence to show. Nieto family lawyer Adante Pointer, painted Nieto as someone who was just eating a burrito on a bench during a typical “San Francisco evening.”

When passers-by saw Nieto sitting on the bench they noticed he had a Taser holstered on his hip, which he used for his job as a security guard, but mistook it for a gun, and called the police.

Pointer delivered a resonating opening statement, continually going back and focusing on the number of shots — 59 — the four officers fired at Nieto. Nearly 60 shots rang out that night atop Bernal Heights, ten of which struck Nieto leaving him with 14 wounds, according to the medical examiner and Pointer:

“(Alex) Nieto was a source of pride for his parents, (they) poured whatever they had into their sons, and it was 59 shots that took Alex away from his parents.”

In her opening statement, deputy city attorney Margaret Baumgartner portrayed Nieto as someone who was acting strange that night, citing witness reports that he was aggressively pacing around a bench and shadow boxing. Baumgartner also mentioned another witness report that Nieto had pointed his Taser at the witness’ dog.

The four officers’ accounts stated they drove around looking for a way into the park. When they saw Nieto coming down a hill after responding to the earlier call, they pulled their guns out and yelled to see his hands. Nieto then according to the officers, got on a knee, aimed his taser at the police and yelled back to let him see their hands before the police opened fire.

Baumgartner focused her statement on the notion that the police did what they were trained to do, and that the evidence would confirm the officer’s account of what happened:

“He (Nieto) wanted the encounter, all they (police) knew was that this man had a gun pointed at them and their lives were in danger.”

After waiting nearly two years since the death of Nieto, Pointer said the families were relieved to finally start a trial but not without some bittersweet feelings. After the day’s events outside of the courthouse, Pointer said:

“It’s been a tough road for the family, they are happy to start the trial, but it’s bittersweet.”

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. The trial is expected to last at least into next week, with witnesses taking the stand Wednesday morning.


Julia Cheever of Bay City News contributed information to this report.