As protesters take to the streets nationwide over police shootings of unarmed black men, the Elk Grove Police Department has settled a case in which the police officer admitted he was trying to kill a white suspect who was lying, hands cuffed, in the back of a police car.
The payout to John Hesselbein, 38, was relatively small – $150,000. It came nearly 5 1/2 years after Elk Grove police Officer Paul Beckham used his personal assault rifle to shoot Hesselbein in the face point blank in what Beckham would later admit was an attempt to kill the domestic violence suspect.
The last of the legal details were wrapped up earlier this month.
Elk Grove police spokesman Christopher Trim said the department would have no comment on the settlement, and the city did not respond to a request for comment.
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At the time of the shooting in the early hours of Jan. 30, 2011, Hesselbein was lying on the back seat of a police patrol car with his hands cuffed behind his back. Beckham was standing no more than 5 feet from him in the door of the car.
Hesselbein survived because the bullet passed through his left temple and cheek, instead of “the middle of his head,” where Beckham testified he was aiming. The officer said he shot Hesselbein because he was afraid the suspect had a gun.
But no gun was ever found – either in a search by another officer before Hesselbein was placed in the car or in a second search when he was pulled out of the car after the shooting.
The incident set off a lengthy legal fight. A jury decided the officer was justified in shooting Hesselbein, but a federal judge – declaring he was baffled by the jury’s decision – took the unusual step of throwing the verdict out and granting a new trial. The parties settled the case before a new trial could start.
Hesselbein’s attorney, Stewart Katz, said the jury verdict “went against the clear weight of the evidence, and appears to have been based on subjective and irrelevant state of mind evidence, or passion and prejudice, or both.”
Although the incident evolved into a bruising legal battle, it did not generate the widespread outrage directed at other officer-involved shootings in the region and elsewhere. No cellphone or dash cam video emerged, and the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office found nothing wrong with what the officer did.
During the federal trial of Hesselbein’s civil rights lawsuit, Beckham testified that he intended to kill the suspect when he shot him because he thought it was possible Hesselbein had hidden a gun on his body.
It boggles the court’s mind how the jury could find plaintiff posed an immediate threat to the officers.
Judge William Shubb
The officer said he fired only once because it appeared he had succeeded in killing Hesselbein. In fact, the round left little lasting damage.
At his trial in November, Hesselbein told the jury he has a faded scar, modest pain and a droopy left eye.
Beckham testified that he had at least twice ordered Hesselbein to stop squirming around on the car seat. He recalled telling Hesselbein, “Stop moving, or I’ll peel your grape.”
“That’s when he got his hands all the way into the back of his pants,” Beckham testified. “I thought I was about to be shot, so I took a shot at that time.”
At the trial, Beckham testified he had been a police officer more than 13 years, first in Galt and then in Elk Grove. He said he was at that time his department’s use-of-force training officer, which meant he trained fellow officers on when to use force and how much, depending on the circumstances.
He has since left the department and could not be located.
In a 25-page order granting Katz’s motion for a new trial, U.S. District Judge William Shubb wrote that he “simply does not understand how a jury could find from the evidence presented in this case that a reasonable officer would have believed plaintiff had a gun.”
“In order to pose a risk to the officers, plaintiff would have had to somehow retrieve the gun with one hand from its clandestine location, manage to aim it from behind his back in the direction of the officers without shooting himself, and somehow pull the trigger before any of the officers surrounding the car could respond,” the judge noted. “It boggles the court’s mind how the jury could find plaintiff posed an immediate threat to the officers under these facts.”
Shubb found that defense lawyer Bruce Praet had managed to present to the jury information favorable to Beckham regarding the officer’s past interactions with suspects that should not have been admitted into evidence. This is what convinced Shubb that a new trial was necessary.
One part of the evidence that prompted Shubb to doubt Beckham’s credibility was the officer’s explanation for why the shooting was not filmed.
Beckham’s patrol car was parked in the line of sight of the shooting scene and equipped with a video camera. However, he manually turned off the camera after Hesselbein was placed in another officer’s car, even though agency policy requires that recording continue until suspects are removed from the scene.
Beckham testified he stopped recording because Hesselbein was in custody and he felt the scene had stabilized. He turned the camera on again approximately 90 seconds after the shooting because, he said, it starts recording at a time 30 seconds before it goes on and he hoped to capture the shooting, but it was too late.
During this part of his client’s testimony, Praet remarked how “unfortunate” it was that the camera was not on at the time of the shooting.
The incident stemmed from a 911 call Hesselbein’s wife made to report a domestic dispute. She told a dispatcher Hesselbein had been drinking and was on parole for murder. This was passed on to Beckham and other responding officers, along with an old report that Hesselbein had ties to the Sac Town Crips street gang, court documents say.
The information was later corrected to confirm Hesselbein had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter, not murder. And, because he is white, he is not eligible for membership in the black street gang. In 1994, he was identified as a passenger in a car being driven by a member of the Crips.
When officers arrived at his home on Callippe Way, Hesselbein was belligerent, according to an August 2011 report on a review of the incident by then-District Attorney Jan Scully.
“I got something for you mother(expletive),” Hesselbein yelled as he held his hands together and pointed them toward officers, according to a Bee account of the Scully report.
One officer shouted “gun,” and they backed off. Beckham and another officer assigned to the department’s rifle team took up positions until Hesselbein emerged from the house.
He walked to the middle of the street and knelt down, where Officer Andrew Bornhoeft handcuffed him, then lifted him up and searched him. The search yielded no weapon.
Police placed Hesselbein in the back of a patrol car, but within moments a commotion erupted, according to Scully’s report. It said Hesselbein began yelling, “I’ve got a gun,” and started thrusting his cuffed hands down into his rear waistband.
But, as Shubb pointed out in his order, “Not a single officer testified (at last fall’s trial) that plaintiff said he had a gun on his person.”
“Under the circumstances of this case, where plaintiff had been thoroughly searched for a weapon and was handcuffed in the back of a secure patrol car, it would seem to the court that the only reasonable response to the statement ‘I have a gun’ would be for an officer to ask ‘Where?’ before shooting him in the head,” Shubb wrote.
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189