A federal court jury has exonerated a Sacramento County sheriff’s sergeant of excessive force and wrongful death claims by the family of a mentally ill man who was shot and killed by the officer six years ago.
The eight-member jury decided Friday that Sgt. Jon Zwolinski, now retired, did not violate the constitutional rights of Giat “Jack” Van Truong when he shot Truong in self-defense on Dec. 8, 2009.
“This verdict preserves Sgt. Zwolinski’s well-deserved reputation as a man who devoted his life in service of his country and this community,” attorney Van Longyear said Monday in reference to his client’s time in the military as well as his more than 20 years in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.
Longyear filed court documents that say Zwolinski responded that morning to a 911 call from Truong requesting assistance with an argumentative roommate at Sun Valley Apartments, a south area complex known for its high crime rate and frequent drug and gang activity. Unbeknownst to Zwolinski at the time, the roommate was Truong’s mother, Lieu Thi Truong.
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Jack Truong answered Zwolinski’s knock. Lieu Truong had locked herself in the bedroom. When the sergeant insisted, over Jack Truong’s objections, upon entering the apartment to check on the mother’s welfare, Truong attacked him, according to the court papers filed by Longyear.
“The attack was so sudden and so violent ... Zwolinski immediately pulled his service weapon and backed away from Truong,” then called for backup, according to the papers. When Truong advanced despite the gun that was pointed at him, Zwolinski doused him in the face with pepper spray, the papers say. They say Truong wiped the substance from his face with a shirt he was holding and, consequently, the chemical appeared to have no effect.
This is the description in the papers of the altercation’s final moments: The sergeant’s repeated orders for Truong to get on the floor went unheeded, and the officer “withdrew his collapsible baton to use it to fend off blows. Truong then snatched the baton ... and back-handed Zwolinski across the head.” Truong raised the baton to strike again, Zwolinski warned he was going to shoot, but Truong kept coming and the sergeant fired three shots. All three bullets struck bone and deflected into the torso.
Truong died at the scene. He was 35, a high school dropout who, between 1993 and his death, had numerous interactions with various agencies, including the Sheriff’s Department and Sacramento County Mental Health Services. He suffered from schizophrenia and delusions, a fact not known to Zwolinski.
Truong’s mother and four siblings sued Sacramento County and Zwolinski, accusing the sergeant of applying excessive force, negligence, and assault and battery.
Court documents filed by the family’s attorney, Kenneth Frucht, allege that the officer’s “unlawful entry needlessly provoked the deadly confrontation that ensued. Up until that point, there is no evidence that Jack had committed any crime, or was fleeing from Zwolinski, or presented any danger whatsoever to the deputy.”
The jury did not agree, finding specifically that Zwolinski’s use of lethal force did not violate Truong’s constitutional guarantees against unreasonable seizure and deprivation of due process.
Longyear said Monday his client “only resorted to that force when all other alternatives failed to stop what the jury found was a lethal threat to the sergeant’s life.”
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189