Seven years ago next Tuesday, NYPD police officers shot and killed Mauricio Jaquez in his Bronx apartment. They claimed he was holding a knife. Last week, a civil jury came back finding that the last shot was reasonable, even though it was fired into the back of Mauricio’s head after he had been hit four times already. During the trial, the headlines favored Mr. Jaquez’s side of the story: Cop testifies that man he fatally shot wasn’t an imminent threat and I called 911 for cop-shot hubby, not because I was scared: wife, and strongest-of-all Victoria Bekiempis’s Daily News headline: NYPD cop crossed line with fifth bullet shot at mentally deranged man: lawyer. The evidence came in pretty much as expected. So what happened?
To begin, criminal defense lawyers know that when there is a colorable claim of self-defense in a homicide case, the defendant stands a good chance at acquittal. The prosecution’s most important witness is unable to testify. Juries tend to be sympathetic to arguments that the victim was the initial aggressor, especially when the victim is not there to give his side of it. If someone is coming at you with a knife, you very well might get away with shooting him to terminate the threat.
But this was not a civil case. As plaintiff, all we had to prove was that it was more likely than not that the sergeant used unreasonable force when he shot Mauricio Jaquez for the last time. The jury found that we had not proven that, even with the sergeant’s own admission that there was no threat at the time of that last shot. The jurors also found that the sergeant had proved (by a preponderance of the evidence too) that Mauricio was pushing up from the floor with a knife in his hand at the time of the last shot. According to the judge, that may have given him immunity from suit even if the jury found the last shot was reasonable.
At the same time, we believe there were errors in the proceedings that give Mr. Jaquez’s estate (i.e. his family) a good chance for a new trial after an appeal. Without giving away too much at this point, we think that the trial court was wrong not only to dismiss the earlier part of the case — the initial entry, the Taser shots, the rubber bullets, the first four live bullets — but also to repeatedly instruct the trial jury that the officers’ earlier actions were reasonable. We also believe that a medical expert who had volunteered to testify about Mr. Jaquez’s condition, emergency room physician Dr. Richard Sullivan of Cambridge, Massachusetts, should not have been excluded from testifying. Finally, a sculpture of Mr. Jaquez’s body showing the angles of the shots should not have been excluded.
We learned a lot from the trial. I am very grateful to associate Sharlene Morris, Esq., who skillfully cross-examined a police witness. The witness, a young officer who helped pull Mauricio’s wife and nine-year-old son from the apartment before the sergeant and his team arrived, did not see a knife. But she also changed her story, claiming that her vantage point was not as clear as she had earlier testified. Ms. Morris impeached that testimony, getting the witness to claim, incredibly, that her memory was better now than on the day of the incident due to “certain situations” that she did not explain further.
We also benefited from expert advice from jury consultant Eric Rudich, PhD, of Magna Legal Services, who generously volunteered his time. Artist and former emergency medical technician Thomas Beattie brilliantly captured the deceased’s torso and the trajectory of the bullets by projecting them onto a foam sculpture. Dr. Sullivan donated huge amounts of time and wisdom analyzing the copious evidence from the autopsy. Ace paralegals Jeffrey Hetzel and Liam O’Leary made sure everything was exactly where it was supposed to be during the trial and leading up to it. Former zmolaw.com associate Julia Busetti got the case back into court after it had been neglected past the statute of limitations by the prior attorney, and erroneously dismissed by the judge. Many thanks to the many other friends and supporters who stopped by the trial or offered a kind word along the way, to the Southern District’s Office of Pro Se Litigation, the Hon. Katherine B. Forrest, and the numerous fine lawyers of the New York City Office of Corporation Counsel who honorably represented the defendants in the case.
But thanks most of all to our clients, the Bronx Public Administrator and the Jaquez family: his widow Ana Martinez, their daughter Nicole Jaquez, and their two young sons. It has been a unique privilege to represent the beautiful, struggling family that Mauricio Jaquez left behind. No legal process will ever bring back their husband and father but we hope to bring the case back to court after appeal to obtain compensation and a sense of justice to this tragic set of circumstances.