Crime - Sacto 911

DA to drop charges against man severely burned during takedown by Citrus Heights police

Burned man’s mom: ‘My son needed help from the officers, instead of being harmed by them’

Tarsha Benigno, with husband Barry Benigno, talks about the severe burns her son received while being held on the hot asphalt by Citrus Heights police.
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Tarsha Benigno, with husband Barry Benigno, talks about the severe burns her son received while being held on the hot asphalt by Citrus Heights police.

The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office plans to drop felony criminal charges against a man who suffered severe burns while Citrus Heights police pinned him to the hot asphalt following an incident at a restaurant this summer.

At a brief court hearing Monday, attorneys said the DA intends to dismiss charges against James Bradford Nelson, 28, who bears thick scars on his chest, face and buttocks as a result of his encounter with police on June 23.

Nelson currently is charged with trying to rob a KFC restaurant employee of his wallet, as well as being under the influence of a controlled substance and resisting a police officer.

DA spokeswoman Shelly Orio confirmed Monday afternoon that in light of the “unique facts and circumstances” of Nelson’s case, the office only will pursue allegations that he violated parole, which carry far lighter penalties.

“We have determined that the range of penalties available for a parole violation are sufficient” in Nelson’s case, Orio said.

The DA will allege Nelson violated parole by committing battery on a KFC employee, trying to steal that person’s wallet and resisting arrest, she said. He faces a maximum of 180 days in the county jail for such violations, versus potentially years in state prison on the current charges.

Nelson’s mother and stepfather, Tarsha and Barry Benigno, said they were relieved about the development. But they said police used excessive force against Nelson, and should be held accountable for his injuries.

Citrus Heights police Chief Ron Lawrence has defended the actions of his officers, arguing that Nelson was dangerously violent and tried to flee from officers on the day they encountered him.

The Benignos said Nelson was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia as a teenager, and that his life has been a constant cycle of arrests and incarcerations related to his psychotic outbursts. In recent years, he has been convicted of attempted robbery and other offenses.

“He had a mental episode in Citrus Heights, and now he’s scarred for life,” Tarsha Benigno said.

Nelson’s injuries occurred after police received calls that someone was acting erratically at a KFC on Auburn Boulevard in Citrus Heights. Officers said he tried to flee from them and was acting violently, forcing them to hold him down in a parking lot on an afternoon in which the temperature in Sacramento reached triple digits.

Nelson ended up at UC Davis Medical Center, where he spent weeks in the intensive care unit and underwent three skin-graft surgeries to cover second- and third-degree burns.

In a recent interview at the Stockton home of his parents, Nelson bore heavy scars that he said cause him constant pain and limit his mobility. Nelson since has turned himself in to authorities at the Sacramento County Main Jail, where he remains until his case is resolved.

At Monday’s court hearing, defense attorney Alan Jose asked that Nelson, who is being held on $500,000 bail, be released on his own recognizance because of his medical condition.

“He is not a flight risk. He is not a threat to the community,” Jose argued, as Nelson sat in a wheelchair next to him. “He really is medically frail,” and has prescriptions for strong pain medications, including morphine, that he is not receiving in jail, the lawyer said.

“With all due respect to the Sheriff’s Department, they are not equipped” to care for someone with such serious injuries, Jose said.

Judge Jaime Roman, in response to a request by Deputy DA Sam Nong, declined to release Nelson immediately and scheduled a hearing for Friday on the matter.

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

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