Black Acquitted in Slaying of Police Officer : Outcome in Racially Charged Case in San Diego Stuns Prosecutors

Times Staff Writer

In a decision that stunned prosecutors, a 24-year-old black man who fatally shot one white police officer and wounded another in a racially charged confrontation last year was found innocent Thursday of murder and attempted murder.

The defendant, Sagon Penn, also was acquitted of stealing the dead officer’s gun and the wounded man’s patrol car. The jury deadlocked on four other charges and a mistrial was declared on those counts.

Penn’s lawyers contended that their client acted in self-defense on March 31, 1985, after one of the police officers, Donovan Jacobs, pinned Penn to the ground, taunted him with racial slurs and beat him with his night stick.

Penn pulled Jacob’s revolver from its holster and in the ensuing gunfire, Officer Thomas Riggs was killed and Jacobs was wounded. Also wounded was Sarah Pina-Ruiz, a San Diego woman who was riding in Riggs’ car as a civilian observer.


Numerous trial witnesses testified that Jacobs told Penn: “You think you’re bad, nigger. . . . I’m going to beat your black ass.”

Jacobs testified at the trial that he did not use racial slurs and said he has never used the word “nigger.”

The shootings opened deep divisions between the Police Department and the city’s black community. Black leaders rallied to Penn’s cause and accused officers of being verbally and physically abusive toward minorities.

Police Chief Bill Kolender said citizens in the black community continue to demonstrate “respect and support” for police.


Nine San Diego police officers have been killed in the line of duty in the past decade, more per capita than any large U.S. city. After the killing of Riggs, police formed an Officer Safety Task Force, which recommended allowing officers to use more aggression when combating street violence.

“Now is a time to intensify the healing process,” Kolender said.

Most jurors declined to be interviewed. However, one said the jury believed that Jacobs’ conduct was responsible for the confrontation that ended in Riggs’ death.

Juror Sally Naley, 36, a clerk for a photo-finishing company, said: “There was, early on, a general consensus that people thought he wasn’t guilty of murder. To me, none of it was murder. It was just a bad situation that got worse, tragically. . . .”


As the verdicts were announced at noon, Penn showed no emotion. Riggs’ widow, Colleen, sat expressionless in the back row of the courtroom. Two friends, who sat crying beside her, cursed after each verdict was read.

Afterward, Penn’s bail was cut from $250,000 to $25,000 by Superior Court Judge Ben W. Hamrick, who based his decision on “the findings of the jury and the heavy weight toward acquittal. . . .”

Penn posted bail and was released from jail at about 8 p.m., leaving through a rear exit to avoid reporters.

Defense attorney Milton J. Silverman said: “There’s no victory celebration here. This is a terrible thing that has happened to Officer Riggs, his family, his widow, his children and to Sagon Penn. This began as a tragedy, and it ends as a tragedy.”


Silverman said he would move to have all charges dismissed.

Dist. Atty. Edwin L. Miller said he was stunned by the verdict.

“It certainly isn’t a happy moment for me,” he said.

Miller declined to say if he would retry Penn on the lesser charges.


Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers Jim Schachter, David Smollar, Daniel M. Weintraub, Ralph Frammolino, Barry M. Horstman and Townsend Davis.