By Adolfo Flores
Los Angeles Times
ANAHEIM, Calif. — A federal court jury has rejected a civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a man who was shot to death by an Anaheim officer in 2012, an incident that resulted in days of violence and street protests.
The jury found that the force used against Manuel Diaz was not excessive or unreasonable, said Humberto Guizar, the attorney for Diaz's family. The lawsuit against Anaheim and Officer Nicholas Bennallack sought damages of $3 million to $5 million.
The jury, which deliberated for about two hours before returning its verdict Thursday, found that Bennallack acted reasonably because jurors believed the area where Diaz lived was a gang area, said Guizar, who spoke with the jury after the verdict.
"That's an indictment on the community and I thought we had come a long way," Guizar said. "They denied him justice because of where he lived."
Attorneys and representatives for the city of Anaheim did not return calls seeking comment.
Diaz's mother, Genevieve Huizar, said she was upset by the jury's decision.
"We're disappointed but we're not broken," Huizar said. "We're going to appeal the decision and take it to the next level. Whatever it takes."
Diaz was shot July 21, 2012, after two officers saw him while driving down an alley in the 600 block of North Anna Drive. Diaz and two other men ran away, authorities said.
Bennallack shot Diaz, who was unarmed. Although a gun was not recovered at the scene, officers reported that Diaz tossed items as he ran. A glass smoking pipe and a cellphone were found near his body, authorities said.
The Orange County district attorney's office cleared Bennallack in the shooting, saying that the officer had reason to believe his life was in danger after cornering Diaz in an apartment complex known as a hotbed for gang activity.
In the report prepared by prosecutors, Bennallack's partner, Officer Brett Heitmann, said that when the officers initially spotted Diaz they saw him adjust something in his waistband and believed it might be a weapon.
During the chase, Diaz ran with his hands on the front of his waistband and his elbows sticking out, authorities said. When they cornered him near a wrought-iron fence, Heitmann said, he feared that Diaz was getting ready to shoot at them.
When Diaz reached the fence, he slowed down and began to turn, Bennallack told investigators.
"At this time, I believed the suspect was attempting to turn and — to kill me," he said. He said Diaz held the object with two hands, something another witness corroborated.
"As he began to turn, in fear for my life, I drew and fired my weapon two times," Bennallack said. "I did this to save my life, as well as my partner's life."
Copyright 014 the Los Angeles Times
McClatchy-Tribune News Service