Jury gives split decision in civil-rights trial involving ex-Fresno officer

The Fresno BeeDecember 19, 2013 

— A federal jury found Tuesday that a former Fresno police officer used excessive force in the 2009 shooting death of 23-year-old Stephen Willis.

But jurors in the civil-rights trial also said Willis contributed to his own death.

The jury awarded $1.5 million in damages, saying former officer Greg Catton acted with excessive force and his negligence caused Willis’ wrongful death.

Willis’ family, however, will receive only $300,0000 because the jury ruled Catton was only 20 percent responsible for Willis’ death. His own negligence made him 80 percent responsible, the jury determined.

The jury said another former Fresno officer, Daniel Astacio, who also shot Willis multiple times, committed no wrongdoing and that neither Catton nor Astacio killed Willis out of malice, oppression or reckless disregard.

The panel of five women and three men left the courthouse without commenting.

So did Astacio and Catton. Astacio and Catton no longer work for the Fresno Police Department. Astacio works in the area as a security guard, and Catton is a police officer in Vancouver, Wash.

But Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and Willis’ parents both claimed victory.

“It’s never easy to hear one of our officers committed excessive force,” Dyer said. “But they had to make a split-second decision with limited facts.”

Dyer said he was glad the trial was over because it put a lot of stress on Catton, Astacio and their families. Willis’ death, the chief said, “is something they will have to live with the rest of their lives.”

Chris and Liz Willis bristled when told of Dyer’s comments, saying Dyer has “put us through hell for nearly five years.”

Chris Willis accused Dyer of “demonizing our son” at news conferences and lying about the evidence.

“The truth finally came out – they murdered our son,” Chris Willis said.

He said Mayor Ashley Swearengin would do the public a service if she fired Dyer before “another family has to go through this nightmare.”

But City Manager Bruce Rudd said the mayor has no plans to get rid of Dyer. “The mayor and this community have the utmost respect for the chief,” Rudd said.

Though the damages were modest, the city is still in hot financial water, said San Francisco attorneys Walter Walker III and Peter Koenig, who represented the Willis family.

Because the jury found Catton had violated Willis’ civil rights, the city must pay Willis’ attorneys hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. But Rudd said he felt confident that the city won’t have to pay attorney fees.

“That subject is up for debate,” Rudd said, without elaborating.

Jurors also awarded the Willis family $10,224 in funeral expenses.

It was the city’s third straight loss in U.S. District Court.

Two years ago, a federal jury found that Fresno police Sgt. Mike Palomino used excessive force when he shot and killed Steven Vargas in October 2009. The city agreed to pay $1.3 million to Vargas’ family.

Another federal jury in 2009 awarded Michelle Maher nearly $2.5 million after she was forced out of the Fresno Fire Department’s training academy. The jury found Maher was the victim of gender discrimination.

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