Nathanael Pickett had recently moved into the El Rancho Motel in Barstow when he was approached by a San Bernardino County deputy who suspected him of trespassing.
A confrontation between the two escalated and Pickett, 29, was fatally shot. On Wednesday, a federal jury awarded Pickett’s parents $33.5 million in damages, finding that the deputy had detained their son unreasonably, delayed medical aid and was negligent when he used deadly force, according to federal court records.
The jury deliberated about two hours in the civil case, weighing conflicting versions of the November 2015 encounter, before returning the verdict. The sum, which experts say is among the largest in police shooting cases, includes $15.5 million in compensatory damages and $18 million in punitive damages.
The county “tried to sell a story to the jury about how the incident happened that the jury realized, through the presentation of evidence, was not true,” said Dale K. Galipo, an attorney representing Pickett’s parents. The large award, he said, is “a signal that members of our community are no longer willing to tolerate these unjustified police shootings.”
In a statement, Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Cindy Bachman said the agency strongly disagrees with the outcome.
“Our attorneys, the department and the county will be discussing appealing the jury’s award,” she said.
In a brief filed in court last month, attorneys for the county said Deputy Kyle Woods was on patrol when he saw Pickett looking back at him several times as he crossed a street. When Pickett disappeared, Woods surmised he had jumped a fence into the motel parking lot and followed, jumping it himself.
When Woods approached, Pickett gave the deputy a false name — he spelled his last name “Piggett” — and appeared to be under the influence because he was twitching and had a white coating on his tongue, the filing said.
Woods tried to detain Pickett, but he ran, the filing said. During an ensuing scuffle, the county argued, Pickett mounted the deputy and punched him multiple times.
Woods felt he was losing consciousness, pulled out his gun and said: “Stop, I’m gonna shoot you,” the filing said. The county argued that Pickett grabbed the gun, prompting Woods to open fire in fear of his life.
Galipo disputed the deputy’s version of events, pointing to video captured by motel security cameras as well as photos of Woods taken an hour after the incident.
Despite saying that he was punched in the face more than 10 times, Woods had no visible injuries, Galipo said. The video recording doesn’t show Pickett throwing any punches and witnesses didn’t see Pickett grabbing the deputy’s gun, he added.
“It was a made-up story,” Galipo said, adding that the deputy waited 28 days before giving a statement about the incident. “The jury realized it was all made-up.”
Galipo said Woods, who sheriff’s officials said still works for the agency, was involved in a second on-duty shooting of an unarmed person this January, which the jury didn’t know about. In that case, the man survived.
Jody D. Armour, a professor at USC Gould School of Law, was struck by the large sum, especially the amount awarded for punitive damages. The verdict should send a message to the agency to improve training and hiring practices, he said.
“The jury was convinced that there was clear and convincing evidence that the officer was not merely negligent and unreasonable in killing the victim, but that his behavior was egregious, that it was characterized by malice,” Armour said. “I remember $5-, $7-, $8-million awards, but nothing in this area.”
March 15, 6 p.m.: This article was updated to include security footage of the incident.
This article was originally published on March 14 at 8:50 p.m.