WESTMINSTER : Attorney Criticizes Race Issue in Case

An attorney for the family of a Latino man who was shot and killed by a Westminster police officer criticized what he called an "appalling" attempt by the officer's attorney to focus on race.

"What Mr. (Bruce) Praet has done," said Christopher B. Mears on Thursday in U.S. District Court, "is rely on the jury's biases and prejudices, particularly when it comes to Mexican-Americans and Mexican-American gangs. It has no relevance to the facts of this case."

Mears' statements were made during closing arguments in a federal civil trial involving a lawsuit brought by the family of Frank Martinez, 18, against Officer Steven Phillips. Phillips shot Martinez to death when a melee broke out during a birthday party at the Martinez residence July 15, 1988.

In court, Praet argued that the issue of the Latino gang West Trece was significant to the case because responding officers were investigating the report of a gang kidnaping.

When officers arrived, Praet said, they were surrounded by a hostile crowd of about 30 to 40 people.

One brother, Danny Martinez, challenged Phillips to "take off your badge" and fight. Other brothers also assaulted the officers, including Robert Martinez, who had smashed a chair over the head of another officer, Praet said.

Bailey said the incident that precipitated the shooting was an "unlawful" arrest of one of Martinez's brothers.

When Robert Martinez came to the aid of his brother, a scuffle broke out. Both brothers managed to escape the grasp of two officers and ran into their back yard, where Frank Martinez was later shot by Phillips.

The family has sued Phillips, alleging that he used excessive force and violated the civil rights of Martinez.

According to Phillips' testimony, the officer had been beaten and kicked and then hit from behind by someone with a beer bottle. While he was on the ground and the beating continued, he saw Martinez running at him with a beer bottle and he shot him in self-defense.

The jury is expected to begin deliberations today.

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