Civil Trial in Slaying by Westminster Police Begins
A federal civil trial involving the police shooting of an 18-year-old Westminster man after a melee broke out during his mother’s birthday party got off to an emotional start Thursday when the young man’s father testified how he watched his son die.
A tearful Joel Martinez Sr. described to jurors how he saw his son, Frank Anthony Martinez, collapse on a gravel driveway after being shot once in the chest by Westminster Police Officer Steven Phillips.
“I saw blood all over his hand which was over his stomach,” said the father, who paused often during his testimony to catch his breath.
The father rushed to his son’s aid, but by that time, another son, Robert, had “cradled (Frank’s) head, and told him, ‘It’s OK. It’s not going to hurt any longer,’ ” as Frank lapsed into unconsciousness.
Phillips is accused in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit of violating the civil rights of Frank Martinez and the Martinez family. If the jury finds that he was negligent and violated those rights, damages could also be sought against the city of Westminster in a separate trial.
The case before U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts is an emotionally charged one. During opening arguments Thursday, attorneys for both sides acknowledged that emotions are expected to run high during the trial.
The July 15, 1988, fatal shooting of Martinez, a popular youth involved in sports and the local boys’ club, galvanized the neighborhood against police. After his death, homemade signs protesting the shooting were quickly hung across front porches, while neighbors formed patrols to monitor police.
Police officials have maintained that Martinez and an angry crowd attacked officers after they tried to question Martinez’s brother about an alleged gang incident in the neighborhood. Officers were punched, beaten and hit over their heads with beer bottles, creating a life-threatening situation for them that led to the shooting, police officials have said.
“Evidence will show this was a riot situation,” said Phillips’ attorney, Bruce D. Praet, who, in his opening statement, described those attending the birthday party at the Martinez house as an “unruly, contentious crowd” that had vengeance on its mind.
It was during a scuffle with Frank Martinez, who allegedly struck Phillips and another officer with a beer bottle, that Phillips drew his .357-Magnum revolver and shot Martinez once in the chest in self-defense, Praet said.
Investigations by the district attorney’s office and the county grand jury later cleared police of any wrongdoing.
Tensions in the neighborhood eventually calmed, but only with the help of a community mediator from the U.S. Department of Justice who was called in by concerned Latino leaders.
Relations between police and the community have improved, but both sides fear the trial may reopen old wounds.
In court, Praet described the Martinez neighborhood as a “gang neighborhood” and told jurors that the fatal shooting was sparked by an earlier rock- and bottle-throwing incident involving rival gangs and a reported kidnaping of two girls “only four doors down” from the Martinez residence.
“You’ll hear evidence that Frank Martinez was not a gang member, but he did grow up in this area and knew gang members,” Praet said.
On the night of the shooting, Frank Martinez’s older brother, Joel Martinez Jr., was stopped for questioning by police as he strolled near his home. A scuffle ensued and Frank Martinez ran over to help his brother.
Praet said that Frank Martinez slugged one of the officers, then ran into his back yard, with three officers, including Phillips, in pursuit.
That’s when the crowd turned on the officers and Frank Martinez was shot.
“This is a case of police officers who were doing their jobs,” Praet said.