Diana Walsh, Chronicle Staff Writer
Copyright 2005 The Chronicle Publishing Co.
All Rights Reserved
THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE (California)
A San Jose jury acquitted a state narcotics agent of voluntary manslaughter charges Tuesday for fatally shooting a man in the back during a botched stakeout two years ago.
The case against agent Mike Walker had been closely watched because it was the first time in the state's history that a Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement officer had been charged for killing someone in the line of duty. Walker shot and killed 43-year-old Rudy Cardenas, a father of five whom the agent had mistakenly identified as a parole violator.
At the end of the two-month-long trial, members of the jury deliberated about two days before reaching their verdict.
"We have a lot of doubts about the whole incident, but we have no doubts about our decision,'' said Mike Krey, a member of the six-man, six-woman jury. "We are not saying that Mike Walker is innocent -- we are just saying that the prosecution did not hurdle the burden of proof that the shooting was unjustified and that Mike Walker did not think he was in imminent danger.''
Walker was one of several agents involved in a routine stakeout on Feb. 17, 2004, when he mistook Cardenas for a wanted parole violator. After a 10-minute car chase through the streets of downtown San Jose, Cardenas, who later tested positive for methamphetamines, abandoned his car and fled on foot.
During the subsequent police investigation and in testimony during the trial, Walker said he saw a gun in Cardenas' hand and that he shot him in self-defense after Cardenas pointed a gun at him. Investigators did not find a gun on Cardenas but later discovered a folding knife in his pants pocket.
Deputy District Attorney Lane Liroff tried throughout the trial to paint the 34-year-old Walker as a cowboy cop whose tactics on the day of the shooting looked more like a Hollywood chase scene than the way police officers are trained to respond. Liroff said Walker never saw a gun and shot Cardenas in the back because he was getting away.
Krey said the prosecutor never proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Walker didn't feel that his life was in danger. Moreover, the jury believed Walker when he said he thought he saw a gun.
"Mike Walker's testimony was very consistent from day one -- not perfectly, but more than less," Krey said. "Right at the time of the shooting, he's saying 'gun, gun, gun. ...' We couldn't say he did not see a gun, that the threat wasn't imminent and that (the shooting) was not justified."
But the jury did not buy the defense team's notion that Cardenas may have wanted to die by what police call "suicide by cop," according to Krey.
"We rejected that pretty quickly,'' he said.
The San Jose courtroom was packed Tuesday, as it was during the trial, with Cardenas family members and friends, police watchdog activists and agents from the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement as the verdict was read.
Individuals from both sides burst into tears as a clerk announced the not-guilty verdict.
Regina Cardenas, 27, the victim's daughter, called the verdict "completely unfair and unjust."
"The evidence was overwhelming," she said outside the courthouse. "That's why we're so surprised. I don't know how this could happen."
Walker and jurors left the courthouse through a rear door to avoid reporters and protesters who had gathered in front of the courthouse, but Walker's attorney, Craig Brown, was confronted by an angry group of protesters and family members.
"I'm very relieved, Mike is very relieved, and every man and woman wearing a badge is very relieved," Brown told reporters as protesters chanted "murderer" and "no justice, no peace." "I don't think Mike should have ever faced this trial."
The prosecutor said he was disappointed by the verdict but said the decision to try the case was right.
"I thought Walker's performance as a police officer was way over the top. It was wrong, and I don't think he should be a police officer,'' Liroff told reporters.
Liroff called it an "unfortunate reality that jurors give a greater benefit and are more indulgent of a police officer." Still, he said he believed there was a benefit for trying the case: "Law enforcement has to know they don't have free rein."
Walker worked for 11 years as a Watsonville police officer and one year as a state drug agent. Brown said his client has not decided whether he will return to police work.
Cardenas' family members have filed two civil lawsuits in the case.
December 14, 2005
Calif. narc agent absolved in killing