A jury has awarded more than $13 million to the children of a man who died after a confrontation with Anaheim police in 2016, deciding that officers used unreasonable force and were negligent.
The unanimous verdict in a U.S. District Court trial in Los Angeles followed two hours of deliberations and was “the obvious decision from seven days of testimony,” said jury foreman Brian Marcus of Los Angeles.
Eight jurors “had the task of putting a dollar value on a human being’s life, and it was so gut-wrenching,” he said. “I would have liked it to be a heck of a lot more for what this family and this poor man endured.”
Fermin Vincent Valenzuela, 32, died from complications of asphyxia caused by the July 2, 2016, fight with two police officers. The officers used a stun gun and a chokehold to subdue Valenzuela, saying he was violent, under the influence of methamphetamine and had tried to flee.
Officers Woojin Jun and Daniel Wolfe encountered Valenzuela at a laundromat after a woman called to report that a man had trailed her mother home and was pacing in front of their house near Broadway Street and Magnolia Avenue in Anaheim. Wolfe, speaking to Valenzuela, noticed blood on his hand and a screwdriver in his bag, Anaheim city spokesman Mike Lyster said in a statement.
Wolfe ordered Valenzuela to stop and put his hands behind his back, but Valenzuela refused, Lyster said. As both officers attempted to detain him, Valenzuela fought, prompting Wolfe to use a Taser.
Valenzuela ran across the street with the two officers, later joined by Anaheim Sgt. Daniel Gonzalez, in pursuit. The officers then tried to subdue Valenzuela with a carotid hold — a move that requires applying pressure to the sides of the neck, blocking the flow of blood to the brain and leading to temporary loss of consciousness.
Valenzuela became unresponsive and paramedics took him to a hospital, where he had three heart attacks. Eight days later, family members decided to remove him from life support after he was declared brain-dead, said Garo Mardirossian, an attorney representing Valenzuela’s children.
Investigators from the Orange County district attorney’s office found the officers’ actions justified, but Valenzuela’s family, saying he was unarmed and not a threat, filed a federal wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Anaheim.
Lyster called the $13.2-million judgment unwarranted. “Our officers responded to a family’s call for help and took measured, reasonable actions in dealing with someone intent on resisting, fighting and getting away,” he said.
“Our police have a duty to respond and engage, and their only other option would’ve been to walk away,” he added. “That is not what the community expects of us when they call for help.”
While “any loss of life in our city is tragic,” Lyster said, city officials “are the first to take a critical look at any encounter. We have done so and believe our officers acted in the best interest of public safety.”
Marcus, the jury foreman, disagreed. Watching body camera videos released by police convinced him “to make the decision I did. That and other elements like listening to Valenzuela’s two children on the stand.”
The executive recruiter and father of three said he paid close attention to the officers’ testimonies. “They seemed like really wonderful people, but my opinion is that they exercised bad judgment,” he said. “There was very little attempt to deescalate the situation.”
Attorney Mardirossian said he was grateful for the videos.
“Thank God for body cameras, because cameras captured all the wrongdoing of the officers,” he said. “The bottom line is the officers came up with all sorts of stories of Mr. Valenzuela fighting with them, and yet there was not a single mark on Officer Jun’s face, even though he testified that he was struck three times. The body camera does not show Mr. Valenzuela taking a fighter’s stance or throwing a punch.”
Mardirossian also said he hopes police use of force will decrease.
“Police must stop this type of inhumane activity with their subjects,” he said. “The rank and file deserve our respect. However, sometimes mistakes can be made.”