Officer in Fatal Shooting Testifies He Was Attacked : Trial: Civil rights violations and excessive use of force against slain 18-year-old are alleged in federal court case.
A Westminster police officer who fatally shot a young man during a scuffle at a birthday party testified at a civil trial Tuesday that he acted in self-defense because the man had threatened his life with a beer bottle.
Officer Steven Phillips, who has been sued for excessive use of force and civil rights violations by the family of 18-year-old Frank Martinez, told jurors in U.S. District Court that he went to the Martinez residence on July 15, 1988, after another patrol officer called for help on a police radio.
When he arrived, he said, he attempted to disperse a loud crowd that began yelling obscenities at another officer.
“Then I saw someone running to my left, followed by an officer, and I began to chase him,” Phillips said.
The pursuit took Phillips up the driveway of the Martinez residence where he said he was pummeled to the ground by several people. While on the ground, he said, Frank Martinez threatened him with a beer bottle. Phillips said he shot Martinez because he feared for his life.
Phillips was called as an adversary witness in the federal court trial by attorneys for the Martinez family. They attacked the officer’s credibility, saying his account of events leading up to the shooting have been inconsistent. Specifically, they zeroed in on whether the bottle was broken or intact, and whether Martinez charged the officer--two elements important to Phillips’ claim that he acted in self-defense.
In court Tuesday, Phillips was unable to recall whether the bottle Martinez assertedly had in his hand was intact or broken.
Phillips said he told officers immediately following the shooting that Martinez had threatened to hit him with a beer bottle. Under questioning, he said he did not tell the officers that Martinez “charged” him with a broken bottle.
But in depositions for the trial, Phillips said that the bottle was broken and that Martinez “charged” him. His attorney emphasized those elements in opening statements to jurors as part of his legal strategy of self-defense.
The Martinez family’s attorneys, Christopher B. Mears and Julian Bailey, attempted to discredit in depositions Phillips’ statements in light of results of a police laboratory examination of Phillips’ uniform. No glass fragments were found on his uniform and no beer bottle was found at the scene of the shooting to support the officer’s version of events.
During a recess, Phillips’ attorney Bruce D. Praet said his client omitted details during the initial police inquiries on the advice of his attorney at the time.
“He was told by his (police association) counsel not to make any statements to police. He was told not to, and when the police initially asked to interview him, they were told, ‘No,’ by his attorney.”
“The physical evidence will support (Phillips) and show that Frank Martinez was standing less than two feet away from him at the time he was shot.”
Phillips was cleared of any wrongdoing by the district attorney’s office and also a county grand jury.
Praet is expected to cross-examine Phillips today.