By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A federal jury in San Francisco on Thursday found that a Santa Rosa police sergeant violated the civil rights of an unarmed man when he shot him to death outside the man’s home in 2007.
The eight-member jury concluded that the shooting of Richard DeSantis did not have a “legitimate law enforcement purpose” and awarded his family more than $500,000 in damages, plus attorneys’ fees.
“The jury found that the officer violated the constitutional right of an unarmed mental patient,” said family attorney Eric Safire. “This is big stuff.”
The verdict was a blow to city officials, who fully backed the actions of all six officers who responded to the 911 call and spent nearly five years trying to get the lawsuit thrown out.
Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm, who attended the two-week trial, said the shooting was a “tragic situation” but stood by his officers’ conduct.
“I am disappointed with the jury’s verdict and continue to believe all department personnel in this matter acted appropriately,” Schwedhelm said in a statement.
City Attorney Caroline Fowler, who served as lead attorney in the case, said she believed the jury’s decision was “not supported by the evidence” and will ask the judge for a new trial.
DeSantis, a disabled ironworker, had gone off his medication for bipolar disorder in preparation for returning to work the Monday after Easter, 2007.
Around 1 p.m., he said he heard noises in the attic and began shooting a Glock semiautomatic pistol into the ceiling of his South Avenue home in Roseland in what his wife has called a manic episode. Patricia DeSantis called 911 for help.
When officers arrived, DeSantis was not wearing a shirt, had nothing in his hands, and initially complied with orders to get on the ground, Safire said. Patricia DeSantis testified that she told officers she had recovered the gun.
Officers never got the chance to pat him down to confirm that he didn’t have a weapon because he jumped up suddenly and charged at them, according to police accounts. One officer fired a nonlethal projectile at DeSantis, striking him in the arm.
Testimony differed about the effect of the rubber bullet, but Sgt. Richard Celli said it didn’t stop DeSantis.
“There was a slight delay and then he continued his charge toward the officers,” Schwedhelm said.
Celli then fired his assault rifle, striking DeSantis once in the chest. Officers Travis Menke and Patricia Mann also fired their pistols immediately afterward, striking DeSantis as least once.
Menke and Mann were dropped from the family’s lawsuit after it became clear at trial that it was the shot from Celli that killed DeSantis, Safire said.
Testimony varied among the officers about whether they feared for their lives, with some officers testifying that they were surprised when Celli fired because they expected additional rubber bullets to be fired or the dog released before deadly force was used, Safire said.
“No police officer saw anything that looked like a weapon,” Safire said. “No police officer lost sight of (DeSantis’) hands for a second.”
While Patricia DeSantis testified she told officers her husband was no longer armed, the officers could not be sure he didn’t have a gun in his waistband, Schwedhelm said.
“We didn’t know he was unarmed,” Schwedhelm said.
Police later found three guns in the home.
The fact that officers had “six different perspectives of the same incident” is natural and shouldn’t be used to call into question Celli’s belief that his life was in danger, Schwedhelm said.
Fowler said officers need to independently make the decision to use deadly force when they have a reasonable fear their lives are at risk.
“To require one officer to speculate about what action another officer is going to take is an impossible standard to hold law enforcement officers to,” she said.
But Safire said there are numerous other ways officers could have resolved the situation. They could have released the dog. They could have fired another rubber bullet, used their pepper spray or Tasers or simply wrestled him to the ground, he said.
“If we have to admit that six police officers, fully equipped with Tasers and batons and a dog can’t subdue a visibly unarmed mental patient, then we’ve got a serious problem, and the jury agreed,” Safire said.
The Sonoma County District Attorney’s office under Stephan Passalacqua found in May of 2008 that the officers’ actions were justified.
Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey White previously dismissed several parts of the lawsuit, including removing the city from the case, Fowler said. Celli was held personally liable by the jury, but the city will pay any judgment upheld by the courts, Fowler said.
The jury of seven men and one woman awarded DeSantis’ widow, Patricia, and their daughter, Dani, $343,000 in economic damages. They also awarded noneconomic damages in the amounts of $127,000 for Dani DeSantis, $35,957 for Richard DeSantis’ mother Adrienne DeSantis, and $5,375 for Patricia DeSantis.
The city is self-insured up to $500,000 and has an insurance policy for awards over that amount, Fowler said. She said she didn’t know how much the city had spent in legal expenses on the case to date.
Safire declined to estimate the amount of attorney fees and costs he plans to ask the court for, but said it will amount to “thousands of hours” of time.
The DeSantis shooting was one of a spate of incidents in 2007 and 2008 involving Sonoma County law enforcement officers killing people in mental distress, including a teenager and a mother. Passalacqua cleared all officers of wrongdoing.
The family of Jeremiah Chass, a 16-year-old Analy High School student who was shot seven times by sheriff’s deputies after efforts to subdue him in his parents’ minivan failed, settled their lawsuit with the county for $1.75 million.
In another case, 24-year-old mental health client Jesse Hamilton was shot by a Santa Rosa officer after failing to drop a butcher knife while approaching officers. The city was dropped from a federal lawsuit after it convinced a judge officers did not use excessive force.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or email@example.com.