Famed civil rights attorney John Burris to sue city and officer on behalf of Perez family
on September 30, 2014
Mourners gathered last weekend to honor Richard “Pedie” Perez, the 24-year-old shot and killed by a Richmond police officer during a midnight scuffle. Friends and family remembered him as a good-natured neighborhood kid and Police Chief Chris Magnus, who days earlier said Perez attacked the officer and reached for his gun, came to pay respects.
But famed personal injury and civil rights attorney John Burris, a veteran of countless excessive force lawsuits involving California law enforcement agencies, made sure the services were also about intensifying pressure on the police and defending the dead.
“The most damnable aspect of this, to me, is this claim that [Pedie] reached for the officer’s gun as a basis to justify the shooting,” Burris said in front of a bank of news cameras. “That is a boldfaced lie.”
It’s been two weeks since Richmond Police Officer Wallace Jensen shot the unarmed Perez outside Uncle Sam’s Liquors on Cutting Blvd. The precise circumstances of Perez’ death are the subject of an internal department inquiry and an investigation by the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office.
Burris’ introduction into this case, which has marred an otherwise sustained period of good police-community relations, signals an escalation that all but ensures the matter will garner continued press coverage, spur heated accusations, and potentially cost the city millions.
A bona fide celebrity in the legal world, Burris is perhaps best known for litigating police misconduct, securing millions for his clients from police departments. The client list on his website includes Rodney King, Tupac Shakur, Latrell Sprewell, and Barry Bonds.
In 2010, Burris negotiated a $1.5 million settlement with BART on behalf of the 5-year-old daughter of Oscar Grant, who was fatally shot in the back by a transit police officer at Fruitvale Station in Oakland in 2009. The following year, Burris won $1.3 million for Grant’s mother as part of the same civil rights suit.
Burris will use a similar legal strategy as he takes on the city of Richmond and Officer Jensen.
The suit will claim wrongful death and “a violation of the Fourth Amendment by use of excessive force,” Burris said by telephone. “Deadly force was not justified. That makes it excessive.”
No one has contradicted accounts that Perez was intoxicated and disruptive when he encountered Jensen just after midnight on Sept. 14, or that he physically resisted when Jensen attempted to handcuff him.
Police have said, however, that Perez provoked the deadly force used against him by attempting to seize the officer’s gun. Perez “was aggressive, belligerent and uncooperative toward the officer,” Magnus wrote in a Facebook post, adding that Jensen feared he was about to be overpowered. Magnus said at least one witness reported seeing Perez grab for Jensen’s gun while the two men struggled.
But Perez’ family and friends, several among them witnesses to the incident, have disputed that version of events. Burris has come out swinging, blasting Richmond police officials for placing blame on the dead man.
“What [police] have done is demonized that young person by suggesting he’s done something terrible,” Burris said.
Perez’ family retained Burris the day after the shooting and say they picked him because they wanted strong representation.
“I needed a lawyer. I needed to clear my son’s name. I so want to keep this alive,” said Rick Perez, Pedie’s father. “Oscar Grant’s case stood out in my mind and I knew he handled that.”
Despite Burris’ fame and skill, he may face a tough challenge in this case. While he has had success wresting large settlements from departments like the Oakland Police, which for years has been strained by staffing shortages and high numbers of officer involved shootings, Richmond’s department has been hailed as a model of community policing. Perez’ death was the first at the hands of Richmond police officer in more than seven years.
Richmond has also shown a willingness to fight back against litigants. When a group of officers sued the city and Magnus for alleged discrimination in 2007, the city refused to settle and instead went to trial, spending more than $4 million in legal fees. Magnus and the city were cleared of all allegations, and the plaintiffs and their attorneys lost millions of their own money.
According to Joanna Schwartz, an assistant professor at UCLA School of Law who researches police lawsuits, plaintiffs can have a tricky time proving excessive force.
“With the Fourth Amendment, you have to show that the officer behaved in a way that’s unreasonable, and reasonableness can turn on a lot of things,” Schwartz said.
An officer can claim he had a reasonable belief that the decedent could cause him harm, Schwartz said. The fact that Perez was unarmed is likely to be helpful in an attempt to dispute that type of argument, and could make a settlement in lieu of a trial more likely.
“Different departments handle these things in different ways. Some look quickly to settle cases like this and some fight,” Schwartz said.
Neither the Richmond City Attorney’s Office nor the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office responded to calls for comment.
Burris’ first formal step will be filing a claim in upcoming weeks that will alert the city to the Perez family’s intention to sue.
In the meantime, he has begun to lay the groundwork for his case.
At the memorial service, Burris said Jensen is “known generally as a hothead,” information that, according to Burris, was told to him by an unnamed source and has yet to be confirmed.
Police have said that Jensen has a clean record and is highly trained in crisis negotiation.
“He’s never had any type of discipline or intervention for excessive force,” Richmond Police Capt. Mark Gagan said.
Ralph Hernandez, an investigator and ex-cop contracted by Burris, has also publicly challenged the preliminary autopsy results released by police, which said that Perez was shot three times in the front of his body.
“He was shot, from what I’ve determined by physically examining his body, five times,” Hernandez said. “One in the upper collar, one in the side of his chest, one in the abdominal area, one on top here [pointing to top of left shoulder], and one in the rear of his right thigh area.”
Police officials maintain Perez was shot three times.
“The incident activated our ShotSpotter system and it recorded three shots, which is consistent with the officer’s statement and physical evidence at the scene,” Gagan said. “This is not something that’s open to interpretation, it’s a concrete fact.”
Burris said he also plans to write letters to the Contra Costa County District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney’s Office urging them to bring criminal charges against Jensen, a request that is often seen as a long shot in cases involving police.
In a statement released after the memorial service, Magnus said, “We recognize the family’s right to obtain their own representation and to seek whatever legal recourse they deem appropriate. Ultimately, matters of this nature may need to be settled through the legal system – something we understand and respect.”
For Pedie’s father, a win in court would help to correct the miscarriage of justice that he says took place that night.
“A cop isn’t a judge and a jury,” Rick Perez said. “A death sentence wasn’t the answer to this.”
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