The San Diego police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man in January 2013 is not entitled to immunity in a civil lawsuit filed by the deceased man's wife.
On October 25, a federal appellate court ruled that officer Kristopher Walb could be held liable in a civil lawsuit filed by Lydia Lopez, the wife of then-27-year-old Angel Lopez, whom Walb shot and killed while trying to serve an arrest warrant against Lopez.
As reported by the Reader in a December 2015 cover story, Lopez was a documented gang member who had been arrested carrying a firearm in the years before his death. On January 17, 2013, Lopez's parole officer received an anonymous tip on the whereabouts of Lopez, who was wanted on a parole violation. The informant told the officer that Lopez was carrying a gun with him.
As reported previously, police failed to properly vet the informant, who turned out to be Lopez's drug dealer, Alec Pojas. In the days leading up to the tip, Pojas and Lopez had argued, according to an eyewitness at the scene of the officer-involved shooting.
In response to the tip, SWAT teams converged on an apartment building near San Diego State University, where Lopez was staying. Officers approached Lopez. He ran, ascending the staircase toward the third-floor apartment. While in the hallway, Walb, accompanied by two officers, ordered Lopez to raise his arms and get down on the ground. Officers say Lopez began tugging at his shorts while turning toward the officers. Officer Walb fired six bullets from his MP5 submachine gun, striking Lopez in the back of the head and in his right shoulder blade. The officers later searched Lopez and found he was not carrying a weapon.
Upon examining the body, Lopez's wife discovered burn marks on Lopez's back that ran in a vertical direction. The kill shot entered on the back lower left side of Lopez's head and exited on the top left side of his forehead, indicating that he was in fact kneeling. She hired an attorney who later filed a wrongful death lawsuit on her behalf.
According to court documents obtained by the Reader, a forensics expert also disputed the claim that Lopez was turning toward the officers with his hands in his pockets. The trajectory of the bullets revealed that Lopez was likely following police orders and was in the act of kneeling when Walb fired the shots.
Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that Walb did not qualify for immunity in the case; that, while reviewing the case in the most favorable light for Lopez, there existed "a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Walb violated the Fourth Amendment."
The city appealed the decision. On October 25 an appellate court denied the appeal.
Reads the October 25 ruling, "Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Lopez, a reasonable jury could conclude from the physical evidence that Lopez was not facing the officers, did not make a threatening gesture, and was in the process of complying with the officers’ commands to get down when he was shot. Under those circumstances, Walb’s decision to shoot Lopez would constitute an unreasonable use of deadly force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The lawsuit will return to the federal district court. A trial is expected to take place next year.