A Tragedy to Sort Out From a Routine Start : Litigation: A family is suing a CHP officer in the fatal shooting of a motorist four years ago.
It began with a routine traffic stop in South-Central Los Angeles and when it was over, Yusuf Bilal, a father of four, lay dying in the street from three gunshot wounds to the back.
“You stupid SOB,” California Highway Patrolman Bruce Moats said as he stood near the fallen motorist he had pulled over for running a red light. “All for a traffic ticket!” Moats, who had never before fired his handgun during 13 years on the force, has had to repeatedly recall those horrifying minutes in Department 33 of Los Angeles Superior Court defending himself in a $10-million wrongful-death suit filed by Bilal’s family.
Although no criminal charges were filed against Moats for the 1986 shooting, the family is suing the patrolman and the state for alleged negligence in using excessive force and violating Bilal’s civil rights. The jury is expected to get the case today.
“This (trial) is about the value of a human life, about misuse of police authority and excessive force,” said the family’s attorney, Johnnie Cochran Jr. “Moats forgot the reason he stopped Bilal. It was not because he committed some heinous crime. It was a red light, nothing more. He yelled, he cursed, poked him with his baton, he shot him. . . .”
The defense said Moats acted in self-defense after Bilal grabbed his baton and threatened to kill the patrolman.
“This is not a case about a crazy cop. It is not a murder mystery,” said California Deputy Atty. Gen. Thomas Blake, who is defending Moats. “It is a fairly straightforward case about explosive escalation of force precipitated by a motorist.
“There was no malice,” Blake added. “He was just doing his job. This person forced him into shooting, forced him into defending his own life. Far from being callous, the officer was still in shock.”
Blake said Moats’ remarks--which neither side disputes--were not meant in a derogatory manner toward the dying motorist. He was equally shocked that the incident had turned deadly.
For the last two weeks, as family and friends of the slain Bilal squirmed and whispered in Judge Stephen M. Lachs’ courtroom, witnesses have given contradictory testimony as to what occurred during the March 18, 1986, traffic stop.
Bilal--a devout Sunni Muslim attired in tunic and skullcap--had been to a mosque that day to perform noon prayers and then left to pick up his family and attend a birthday party for his father.
In the 7100 block of South Broadway, near Florence Avenue, Bilal ran a red light in his small foreign car.
Moats, who had just had lunch with other CHP officers, was riding his motorcycle toward his patrol beat when he spotted Bilal’s Toyota Corolla running the light and pulled him over.
He asked Bilal if the address on his driver’s license was current. But Bilal would only say he resided “down the street,” refusing repeatedly to give his address.
The defense contends that Bilal may have been hedging his answers because his license was to be suspended that very day because of an earlier accident and failing to have proof of insurance.
At that point, Moats asked him several times to get out of the car. Bilal told him to “quit hassling me and just give me a ticket.” The CHP officer then opened the car door and grabbed the driver’s shoulder.
What happened then is a subject of dispute. Moats testified that Bilal swung at him twice with his fists, but missed. Moats said he then used his baton to “poke” at Bilal’s face and neck.
The officer also testified that Bilal grabbed the baton and threatened to kill him as he exited the car in a “quick, aggressive manner.”
Moats said that he was “afraid that if he swung the baton he would kill me,” so he took several steps backward and fired three times at the 6-foot 1-inch, 193-pound motorist. The officer said he “guessed” he was aiming at Bilal’s chest, but that the motorist was standing sideways and spun, taking three bullets in the back.
Other witnesses have given conflicting testimony. Some witnesses said that Bilal was exiting the car and his back was to the officer when he was shot. Others said he was bent over when he was shot. Only Moats testified that he heard Bilal threaten to kill him.
An LAPD officer who arrived seconds after the shooting said he found Bilal on his back on the pavement with his right leg still inside the car. He found Moats’ baton on the floorboard. Witnesses testified that they did not see Bilal swing the baton at the officer.
Both sides have tried to shore up their cases with law enforcement experts who reviewed the case.
Retired LAPD Deputy Chief Louis Reiter, who is now a police consultant, testified that “there was absolutely no justification” for Moats to use his baton and revolver in that situation. He added that Moats should have radioed for backup help.
John G. Peters Jr., a nationally-known instructor on the use of police batons, testified that Moats should not have used the baton to “intimidate” Bilal. “You strike only when life is in jeopardy,” Peters said.
The defense called to the stand former Los Angeles Sheriff’s Lt. Joe Callanan, who developed police training films on when to use deadly force. He said Moats was justified under the circumstances in using deadly force. He added that he showed patience during the incident but agreed that Moats misused the baton. Once it was taken from the officer, Callanan said, he had to resort to his revolver.
In the months after the shooting, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office conducted its own investigation. Prosecutors declined to file charges against Moats, stating in a 20-page report that there was insufficient evidence. It concluded that when Moats shot Bilal, the CHP officer believed he was in serious danger.
At the time of his death, the 38-year-old Bilal was an RTD bus driver and Cal State Los Angeles graduate student who planned to open an Islamic textbook printing business.
He lived with his wife, Naseem.
Some of the trial testimony has centered on Bilal’s devotion to his religion. They said he prayed five times a day and changed his name to Bilal from Johnson. One of his children, 25-year-old Andre Kevin Johnson, who once accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Mecca, testified that Bilal didn’t just talk spirituality: “He lived it.”
The trial comes at a time when two other law enforcement agencies--the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department--are being accused by some Muslim groups of harassing their members.
In January, a Nation of Islam member named Oliver Beasley was fatally shot in the head by a sheriff’s deputy after a traffic stop erupted into a melee.
Because Bilal was a Sunni Muslim--and not a member of the Nation of Islam--the jurors have been cautioned to disregard the Beasley shooting.
Instead, jurors will sift through evidence which includes Moats’ Smith & Wesson revolver, enlarged color photographs of the shooting scene, and they no doubt will remember anguished testimony they had heard from people on the witness stand: Bilal’s father, 69-year-old Jimmie Johnson, who cried while trying to explain how much his son had meant to him; the flashes of pain on the usually stoic face of Bruce Moats; and the withering looks that Naseem Bilal hurled at Moats while she testified that she was pregnant when her husband was killed. “It’s been a tragedy all the way around for everyone,” said defense attorney Blake.