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California

Parents said their son’s death was excessive force by an O.C. deputy. A jury agreed

A federal jury on Monday awarded $3.4 million to the parents of an unarmed man who was fatally shot by an Orange County sheriff’s deputy in the parking lot of a Yorba Linda motel in 2016.

During the trial this month, jurors determined that Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Nicholas Petropulos used excessive force when he opened fire on Brandon Lee Witt, who was sitting in a parked car outside an Extended Stay America motel on Feb. 15, 2016.

Witt’s parents, Kathy Craig and Gary Witt, filed a federal lawsuit against Petropulos and the county more than a year after their son’s death, alleging excessive force, battery, negligence and unreasonable search and seizure stemming from the fatal encounter, which lasted less than 10 minutes.

“All of these cases are important because a lot of people feel there needs to be some accountability, particularly in regards to shooting cases,” said attorney Dale Galipo, who represented Witt’s parents. “I think this verdict has sent a message that people are not going to tolerate the shooting of unarmed people.”

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Petropulos was honored as Yorba Linda’s Deputy of the Year for 2016-17, according to a post on the sheriff’s union’s Facebook page. The deputy could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department did not immediately provide a comment on the verdict.

Witt, 39, was sitting in a gold Toyota Avalon in the parking lot of the Extended Stay America shortly before 1 p.m. when Petropulos approached him after he noticed the vehicle was missing a front license plate. Petropulos suspected Witt was under the influence of drugs.

“Throughout the encounter, Deputy Petropulos continuously ordered Witt to get out of the car, turn the car off, keep his hands where he could see them, not to put the car in drive, and to place the car in park. Witt repeatedly disobeyed those commands,” according to an investigative report released by the Orange County district attorney’s office in October 2016.

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Investigators said Petropulos lunged toward the car to grab Witt’s wrists and yelled that he had tried to put the car in drive. Witt pulled Petropulos’ head and shoulders into the driver’s side window of the car, accelerated and used his free arm to rummage around the vehicle. Witt yelled that he was sorry and that he was scared, according to the report.

Petropulos shot Witt in the chest after he stepped on the gas pedal and the car lurched forward, eventually accelerating into a nearby drainage ditch. Witt’s autopsy revealed he had amphetamines in his system at the time, the report states.

The Orange County district attorney’s office, which investigates shootings involving officers, found that Petropulos was justified in shooting Witt because he thought Witt was reaching for a weapon in the car.

However, Galipo said audio and video recordings of the incident that were shown to the jury during the trial provided evidence that the deputy was frustrated by Witt’s failure to comply with his commands and lost his temper.

“At the end of the day, I think the jury felt while [Witt] didn’t follow all of the deputy’s commands, it didn’t justify killing him,” Galipo said.

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Twitter: @Hannahnfry

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