By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The family of a mentally ill man shot to death by a Santa Rosa police sergeant in 2007 has settled its case against the city for just over $1 million.
The settlement of the lawsuit brought by the family of Richard DeSantis was finalized last week by U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero.
Most of the money will go to the family’s lawyers.
The action brings to close five years of legal wrangling over the shooting of DeSantis, an iron worker who went off his medication and began shooting a handgun in the ceiling of his home at 1 a.m.
The case was one of several in 2007 and 2008 involving law enforcement officers killing people in mental distress, prompting the county to establish a special team of mental health professionals help officers respond to such situations.
Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm said he strongly believes all the officers acted appropriately in the DeSantis case and said the settlement is not an admission of police wrongdoing.
“This is not something that we wanted at any point,” Schwedhelm said of the settlement. “But when you factor in the totality of circumstances — with some things we had control over and other things we didn’t — this is the most appropriate settlement for all parties involved.”
The city fought for years to block the case from going to a jury, arguing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court that the officers’ actions in the case were justified. Officers who testified at trial said they never got a chance to search DeSantis and didn’t know whether he was still armed with a Glock pistol when he charged at them.
A federal jury in San Francisco found the shooting violated DeSantis’ civil rights and did not serve a “legitimate law enforcement purpose.” Judge Jeffrey White later overturned the jury’s verdict, calling it “contrary to the clear weight of the evidence” and saying “it would be a miscarriage of justice to let it stand.”
The judge found that even if Sgt. Richard Celli, who fired the fatal shot, acted too quickly by not waiting to see if additional non-lethal rounds would subdue DeSantis, that alone “in light of the quickly evolving situation” was not enough to allow the jury to reach its verdict.
The city and its insurance carrier jointly decided not to going to a second trial, Schwedhelm said.
The city’s exposure, including trial costs, was capped at $500,000. The balance of the settlement was paid by the city’s insurer, a group of cities participating in the Joint Powers Risk Management Authority, said Lynne Margolies, the city’s risk manager.
Since the insurance carrier’s exposure in the case was potentially greater than the city’s, for them it was really a “business decision” about whether to settle, Schwedhelm said.
The City Council signed off on the settlement during a closed session in May, but never publicly disclosed it.
City Attorney Caroline Fowler, who argued the case, did not reply to a request for comment on the settlement June 28 and again July 19. An email message said she is on vacation this week.
Mayor Scott Bartley had no comment. He said he believes he is legally prohibited from speaking about issues discussed in closed session even after the case is resolved. Councilman Gary Wysocky also said he feels constrained from discussing closed session items.
The attorneys who sued the city will get the lion’s share of the settlement, receiving $735,000 in fees and costs. DeSantis’ mother, wife and young daughter will receive a total of $315,000.
Eric Safire, the family’s lead attorney, had no comment on the settlement, citing what he said was a confidentiality agreement imposed by the court.
After the verdict, the family’s attorneys demanded $1.8 million, or $1.3 million in attorneys fees plus the $510,000 awarded by the jury.
The final settlement calls for Safire to receive $588,000 and prominent Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris to receive $147,000.
DeSantis’ wife Patricia, who has since moved out of Sonoma County, received $204,400. His daughter Dani, now 9, will receive $75,600, and his mother Adrianne DeSantis received $35,000.
The funds to DeSantis’ daughter were placed in an annuity that will pay her in lump sums when she is 18, 21, and 25, according to court records.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter@citybeater.