After Nieto family lawyers rested their wrongful death case against The City and four cops who gunned down Alejandro “Alex” Nieto last March, the defense called three witnesses to the stand in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Tuesday.
The first defense witness was Evan Snow, who was walking along with his Siberian Husky without a leash at Bernal Heights Park, and encountered Nieto on the night of his death.
Snow testified Nieto was acting erratic the night he was killed by officers, describing him spinning around with tight shoulders, moving back and forth unusually.
The second witness, Tim Isgitt, was also walking his dogs and noticed erratic behavior in Nieto as well:
“He (Nieto) seemed anxious or nervous, talking to himself placing his hands on his holster.”
Snow noticed Nieto had a bag of chips, something that may have led to the Husky to wander toward Nieto. Snow testified Nieto became agitated by his dog, causing Nieto to hop on a bench and turn to Snow before lifting his shirt and revealing an object on his waistband.
Snow, who is a registered gun owner, remembered thinking Nieto posed a real threat and possibly had a gun, testifying:
“I thought it was the grip of a pistol, I’m going to get shot, I’m going to die here right now.”
Nieto would then pull out his Taser, according to the testimony, aim it at Snow and then at his dog. Snow said:
“Oh shit, he’s going to shot my dog.”
That was when Snow was able to see the profile of the gun and realized that it was a Taser. Snow said he called his dog over and left the park before trying to call the police from his house.
Plantiff’s counsel cross-examined Snow over why he would let his dog get so far away from him, while reading back an earlier deposition stating he had made a racist assumption to police by saying that Nieto was “dressed like a gang member.” Nieto was on his way to a security guard job at a local nightclub and was carrying a Taser stun gun.
Nieto family lawyers also called out his use of a racial slur about Nieto in a text he sent to his friend after the altercation.
Then defense closed with law enforcement trainer Don Cameron, who has been training police officers for 48 years, to make the case that lethal force was justified.
Cameron testified he thought the officers properly followed their training after Nieto failed to comply to their demands, shouting “Show me your hands” when they first confronted him after responding to calls that a man at the park had a gun. He thought the officers’ actions were justified in using lethal force, firing as many as 59 bullets within 30 seconds:
“I can’t wait to see the gun come up and be fired, because (as an officer) I’m playing catch up. You can’t react to that.”
The officers would claim that Nieto yelled back “No show me your hands,” then pulled out and pointed his Taser they thought was a gun right at them, leading them to believe their lives were in danger. Under direct by Deputy City Attorney Margaret Baumgartner, Cameron again defended the officers and their decision not to try to subdue Nieto:
“Once a person has made a move to produce a firearm, talking is over, you have to react to it.”
Cameron’s view conflicted with that of another police practices expert, Roger Clark, who testified on behalf of the Nietos on Monday. Clark said the officers should have taken more time to observe Nieto from a distance and given him more explicit warnings before shooting.
The four officers are Lt. Jason Sawyer, who was a sergeant at the time, and Officers Richard Schiff, Nathan Chew and Roger Morse.
The trail is expected to conclude Wednesday after closing arguments, leaving the eight-member civil jury in the court of U.S. District Judge Nathanael Cousins to begin deliberating in the early afternoon.
Julia Cheever of Bay City News contributed information to this report.