The parents of Luis Gutierrez have only their son to blame for his death at the hands of a Yolo County sheriff's deputy, a federal court jury in Sacramento decided Tuesday.
Gutierrez was shot and killed on a Woodland street on April 30, 2009, by sheriff's Deputy Hernan Oviedo, after Gutierrez tried to slash sheriff's Sgt. Dale Johnson with a pocketknife, the two officers testified.
The 26-year-old Mexican immigrant was walking home from the Department of Motor Vehicles after passing a driver's test and was within sight of the trailer park where he lived with his parents and four siblings when he was intercepted by the deputies. They had decided to stop him on a "consensual contact" even though he was unknown to the deputies and he had no criminal record other than driving-related violations.
Attorneys for the parents tried to plant doubt in the jurors' minds that Gutierrez even had a knife.
The attorneys suggested the knife admitted as evidence at trial was placed at the scene of the incident by some unknown person after Gutierrez was shot.
It was obviously too big a leap for the jury.
"We feel very bad for the Gutierrez family, but with the law and the facts the way they were, it was a just verdict," said a female juror, who declined to be identified by name. "It was a tragedy all the way around."
Two other female jurors who served with her on the jury agreed with what she said, but neither wished to be identified.
The panel of six women and one man deliberated for a full day Monday and for two hours Tuesday, the trial's 13th day.
They rejected the claims of Gutierrez's parents, Irma and Jose Gutierrez, who sought monetary damages from the county and the three deputies in a civil rights lawsuit.
Their son, the eldest of their five children, was unconstitutionally detained and killed, the parents alleged.
Not so, said the jurors, who declared that it was Gutierrez's own behavior that doomed him.
Paul Caputo, a San Jose attorney who represents the parents, said, "Obviously I disagree with the verdict, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for the process."
He said it is "premature" to think about an appeal.
"We want to decompress and gather our thoughts," he said.
There was no gloating in the defense camp, just relief, as the three officers hugged one another.
"It's been a very difficult 3 1/2 years for the family that lost their loved one and for the deputies who were accused of wrongdoing," said lead defense attorney Bruce Kilday. "But, as the judge said, the jury's verdict represents the voice of the community, and I'm very pleased that it found these three deputies acted reasonably under the most difficult of circumstances."
Johnson, Oviedo, and Deputy Hector Bautista then dressed in T-shirts and jeans as members of the Yolo County Gang Task Force and cruising in an unmarked car recalled that Gutierrez ran when they stopped and tried to talk to him as he walked along an overpass sidewalk on East Gum Avenue.
When Johnson chased and overtook Gutierrez, he pulled the knife and tried to cut the sergeant, Johnson and Oviedo testified.
Oviedo, who was behind Gutierrez, fired the fatal shot into his back from about 10 feet away, according to the testimony of Johnson, Oviedo and the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy.
All three deputies testified that virtually everything about Gutierrez made them suspicious, from his "baggy clothing" and short haircut to the gang-infested neighborhood where he was walking and the fact that he was a "Hispanic male."
Once he put a hand in the right front pocket of his shorts and took off running, Johnson was convinced Gutierrez was up to no good, the sergeant, now a lieutenant, told the jury. Johnson caught him and put his hands on Gutierrez's shoulders, but Gutierrez ducked away and pulled the knife, Johnson testified.
The jury found that the sergeant's stopping Gutierrez was not a detention without reasonable suspicion of an identified crime.
It also found that shooting Gutierrez was not excessive force under the circumstances.
Prior to the civil trial, a number of law enforcement agencies that investigated the shooting or reviewed the findings of the investigators agreed there was no criminality by the officers.