In a case that heightened long-simmering tensions between Los Angeles police and residents of one of the city's most troubled housing projects, a federal jury has awarded $3.2 million to the survivors of a Ramona Gardens man who died after an altercation with officers.
The civil judgment in the wrongful-death case, reached Monday, comes five years after 31-year-old Mauricio Cornejo, a wanted parolee described by police as a known gang member, was pronounced dead in a holding cell at the Hollenbeck police station.
"I'm glad we got justice for my brother," Cornejo's sister, Angela, told The Times on Tuesday. "I'm glad his death wasn't in vain. No matter what your situation, no matter what your background, at the end of the day, you're still a human being. He was a son, a brother, an uncle and a father."
Hours before his death, officers arrested Cornejo after a foot chase near the Ramona Gardens project in Boyle Heights. At the time, police said Cornejo and officers engaged in a "knock-down, drag-out fight" after he tossed away a .45-caliber handgun. "This was not pretty," then-Capt. William Fierro said. "However, it was necessary."
The Feb. 3, 2007, incident deepened resentment toward the LAPD among Ramona Gardens residents who claimed officers stigmatized many people there as criminals and routinely harassed them.
For generations, the police had been locked in a standoff with the neighborhood's street gang, Big Hazard. Caught in the middle were about 2,000 other people trying to lead normal lives in the sprawl of barracks-like, World War II-era masonry buildings.
In the days after Cornejo died, with a threat of violence in the air, about 100 officers in riot gear dispersed a group of 40 to 50 gang members holding a curbside carwash to help pay for his funeral.
Jurors at the trial in downtown Los Angeles heard starkly different accounts of Cornejo's death. Lawyers for the city attorney's office, who represented the accused officers, said he died from the strain of resisting arrest while under the influence of drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine. They cited a Los Angeles County coroner's report that listed drug intoxication as a cause of death.
But the attorneys for Cornejo's family, Dale K. Galipo and Humberto Guizar, presented video from a Hollenbeck surveillance camera that they said showed Cornejo was unconscious or dead when he arrived at the station.
"I don't know if you saw the movie 'Weekend at Bernie's,' " Galipo said, likening Cornejo's condition to that of the dead character in the movie who was made to appear alive by friends because they didn't want to cancel a party.
The officers denied the lawyer's assertion, saying an uncooperative Cornejo only appeared lifeless because he went limp to make it difficult for them to move him.
Galipo and Guizar also called Ronald O'Halloran, the chief medical examiner for Ventura County, who testified that baton blows to Cornejo's back and midsection were a cause of his death.
In addition, Roger Clark, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's lieutenant, testified that the officers used unreasonable force and failed to promptly seek medical treatment for Cornejo.
In a statement Tuesday, the LAPD said it "respectfully disagrees with the jury's decision in the Cornejo case. The officers attempted to legally detain Mr. Cornejo, a known gang member and wanted parolee at large.
"Mr. Cornejo, illegally armed with a loaded firearm, chose to flee the officers' lawful detention and a use of force ensued."
The statement also said the Board of Police Commissioners found the officers had acted within LAPD policy.
Jose Navarro, a doctoral candidate in English at USC who grew up with Cornejo at Ramona Gardens, said he was "very pleased" with the jury's award, which will be shared by the dead man's estate and his three minor children.
Navarro said some residents still bristle at the heavy use of security cameras and lighting at the housing project, but overall "things have calmed down." He credited a declining crime rate and the LAPD's increased reliance on community policing tactics, which foster a closer relationship with residents.
"Those are gestures in the right direction," Navarro said.