A jury on Wednesday exonerated an Elk Grove police officer who shot a suspect who was lying on the back seat of a police cruiser with his hands handcuffed behind his back.
Officer Paul Beckham said he was shooting to kill John Hesselbein, but the shot from his assault rifle tore through Hesselbein’s left cheek. The injury was not life-threatening.
Even though Hesselbein had been searched and was prone and handcuffed on the car seat, Beckham testified that Hesselbein was trying to reach into his rear waistband, and Beckham told the jury he was afraid Hesselbein might have been trying to retrieve a weapon from his pants.
A second search after the shooting failed to turn up a weapon.
Other officers at the scene said later Hesselbein was yelling that he had a gun, but Beckham said he did not hear Hesselbein.
After deliberating for a day at the conclusion of a four-day trial in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, the eight-member jury decided Beckham did not employ excessive force under federal law.
Hesselbein attorney Stewart Katz said a juror, who did not want to be identified, told Katz that at one point in the deliberations the panel was split 6-2 against Hesselbein, and two of the six favoring Beckham made it clear they would never vote against law enforcement.
“You never had a chance,” Katz said the juror told him.
Officers were at Hesselbein’s home on Callippe Way in the early hours of Jan. 30, 2011, in response to a domestic violence report by his wife.
Hesselbein, now 37, later pleaded no-contest to misdemeanor battery on his wife and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
His civil rights lawsuit, filed by Katz on Aug. 15, 2011, sought unspecified amounts of compensatory and punitive damages for “pain and suffering and scarring, loss of feeling/nerve damage to his face, and post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office issued a report before the filing of the civil suit clearing Beckham of any criminal culpability.
The lawsuit alleged the report was part of a cover-up designed not only to protect Beckham from criminal prosecution but also to insulate him from civil liability.
Editor’s note: This story was changed at 12:35 p.m. Thursday to clarify which claims the jury was deciding in the case against the officer.
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189