Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Higgins was called to a scene straight out of a horror movie on a September evening in 2013.
A man was chasing another deputy with a knife through a Laguna Niguel condominium complex when Higgins pulled up in his patrol car.
“I’ll kill you, you … !” Connor Zion, 21, screamed as he emerged from the darkness and sprinted past the police car. Higgins sprang into action when Deputy Juan Lopez tripped and Zion lowered the knife to stab him. Higgins drew his gun and fired nine shots.
Zion ran a few feet before collapsing on a walkway between two garages. Higgins fired nine more shots — emptying his service weapon — as Zion lay on the cement. The deputy walked away briefly before turning back, breaking into a short run and then stomping on Zion’s head. He smashed his foot onto the man’s head twice more before retreating to help Lopez, according to dash-cam video and official accounts of the incident.
Higgins won the Sheriff’s Department Medal of Valor in 2014 for his actions that night. The Orange County district attorney’s office wrote in a report of the incident in July 2014 that Higgins’ response was “reasonable and justified” and declined to file criminal charges against the deputy in Zion’s death.
But a federal jury decided this week that Higgins used excessive force against Zion and awarded his mother $360,000 in damages. Jurors determined the second volley of nine shots — as well as stomping on the dying man’s head — constituted excessive force, according to court records.
The verdict ends a civil rights lawsuit Kimberly Zion filed in 2014 against the county and Higgins alleging negligence and excessive force. The county will be responsible for paying the damages.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department declined to comment Thursday on the outcome. An attorney for the county could not be reached for comment.
Orange County attorneys said in court that the use of force was necessary because Connor Zion continued to move while he was lying on the ground after the first round of shots.
“I believed Deputy Lopez to be mortally wounded and that he needed immediate medical assistance to save his life,” Higgins wrote in a declaration filed in court. “I therefore attempted to render the suspect unconscious by striking him in the head with my foot so that I could provide aid to Deputy Lopez without the threat of the suspect continuing to attack myself, Deputy Lopez, or others in the community.”
Lopez was treated for stab wounds to his arm. Zion, who was struck by 11 bullets, was pronounced dead at the scene. Orange County coroner’s officials said he died of multiple gunshot wounds.
The situation began Sept. 24, 2013, after Kimberly Zion arrived at her son’s home on Chandon Avenue shortly after 6:30 p.m. Connor Zion’s roommate had called her to suggest that she visit after Zion, a ballroom dancer who struggled with nocturnal epilepsy, suffered a seizure, according to the lawsuit.
Zion was asleep in his room when his mother arrived but eventually awoke and walked downstairs. Zion’s mother and his roommate noticed that he was “acting odd” and didn’t appear to be in control of himself, the lawsuit noted.
Deputies were called when a struggle erupted with Zion over a kitchen knife. Zion cut his roommate’s arm and sliced his mother’s palm when she tried to take the weapon from him. They ran to a neighbor’s house for help.
The lawsuit spent more than four years winding its way through the legal system. In October 2015, U.S. District Judge James V. Selna granted the county’s motion for summary judgment in the case, and Kimberly Zion appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The panel sent the case back to the lower court in 2017 after deciding a jury should determine whether the second round of shots and the head-stomping constituted excessive force.
The 9th Circuit concluded in its decision that “a jury could reasonably find that Higgins knew or easily could have determined that he had already rendered Zion harmless.”
“If so, a reasonable jury could also conclude that Higgins was acting out of anger or emotion rather than any legitimate law enforcement purpose,” Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the opinion.
Kimberly Zion’s attorney, Dan Stormer, said he hopes the case sends a message that the citizens of Orange County will not accept police brutality. Stormer said Zion’s skull was fractured in two places in the incident.
“The jury was willing to speak out and give a significant award for the pain and suffering that he went through prior to his death,” he said. “The value related not only to the pain he suffered, but also the way the pain was inflicted. [Deputy] Higgins knew he was incapacitated, knew he wasn’t a threat and still viciously stomped on him. It was a vicious, horrific act that served no purpose than to gratify the anger of [Deputy] Higgins.”