A member of San Diego Police Department's Special Weapons and Tactics team who shot and killed an unarmed man in 2013 is not eligible for immunity in a civil trial filed by the victim’s family.
On December 19, U.S. District Court judge Gonzalo Curiel ruled officer Kristopher Walb must answer to a civil lawsuit over the shooting death of an unarmed man, Angel Lopez, during a January, 17, 2013, raid.
The incident, according to court documents, took place at Lopez’s College Area apartment building. Officers had received a tip four days earlier that Lopez, a known gang member of the Latino gang known as Sidro, was living at an apartment complex near Alvarado Hospital with his father, also allegedly a known gang member. At the time, Lopez was wanted for violating his parole after serving time for felony gun possession. The caller also indicated that Lopez was known to carry a .25 caliber pistol.
Uniformed officers, undercover units, as well as the special weapons team worked in conjunction to detain Lopez. Officers approached Lopez on as he and his father walked toward their car. Immediately, Lopez ran back toward his apartment. Members of the special response unit, including officer Walb, ran after him. Walb ordered Lopez to stop. He turned on the flashlight on his Heckler and Koch MP-5 submachine gun. Lopez stopped. Walb testified that he saw Lopez reach into his left pocket and turn to his right. He fired two three-round shots, hitting Lopez in the back, neck, and the back of the head. Lopez was pronounced dead at the scene. After the shooting, officers discovered Lopez was unarmed. Inside his left pocket was a syringe and methamphetamine.
Lopez’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in September 2013.
During the discovery phase, ballistic experts have reviewed the case. They found, according to court documents, based on the trajectory of the bullets, "Lopez could not have been either standing or fully prone when the shots impacted him. Rather, Lopez was in a forward descending motion at the time the bullets struck him. Plaintiffs’ ballistic expert concluded that when he was shot Lopez was either transitioning from a standing to a kneeling position, in a kneeling position, or transitioning from a kneeling position into a prone position."
In November attorneys for the city filed a motion to dismiss several claims and to request that officer Walb be granted immunity. Judge Curiel disagreed.
"...[n]o gun was found on Lopez, which Plaintiffs argue could give a reasonable jury pause as to whether Lopez did in fact keep his hand in pocket, despite facing three armed [special response team] officers who were pointing machine guns at him and commanding him to get down and take his hands out of his pockets," wrote Curiel in his ruling.
Curiel's decision was based on the fact that a jury must be responsible for determining whether officer Walb was negligent in the shooting.
"At this stage of the proceedings, the Court does not weigh the evidence or make determinations about credibility. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, a reasonable jury could disbelieve the officers’ version of events."
The city has since filed an appeal to overturn the ruling.
A pretrial readiness hearing is scheduled for February 27 at 1:30 p.m.