Members of Steven Vargas’s family participated in a demonstration in front of the Fresno Police Department headquarters on Nov. 6, 2009.

A Fresno Family Will Get Their Day in Court Against Fresno Police After All

By Daniel Luna

Contrary to the apparent wishes of Federal District Court Judge Lawrence J. O’Neil, the circumstances of the murder of Stephen Willis by Fresno police officers Greg Catton and Daniel Astacio will be evaluated by a jury in Fresno.

On May 30, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit determined that the civil lawsuit filed by Willis’ parents was improperly dismissed by Judge O’Neil on July 13, 2011, and that several of the claims raised by the Willises should have been decided by a jury. Specifically, a jury will soon be able to evaluate the Willises’ Fourth Amendment claims of excessive force and “shock the conscience” and their negligence-based wrongful death claims against Catton and Astacio but not the supervisor-liability claim against Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer or their Monell claim against the City of Fresno.

The murder of Willis did not involve your usual police/civilian encounter where many men of color are often the victims of the abuse of authority by police officers but instead a situation where Willis, 23 years old, was shot 35 times steps from his home after returning from a day at the shooting range with his girlfriend in 2009. Willis had not been pulled over as part of a traffic stop but had been followed on foot to the parking space near his home inside an apartment complex by the police officers who were there for another matter.

There was some evidence that suggested Catton and Astacio likely overreacted to seeing Willis reaching for his gun that was in a holster in his trunk. There was evidence also suggesting that neither Catton nor Astacio identified themselves as a police officer or warned Willis to drop his gun before they began firing at him. As such, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that “a rational juror could conclude that after the officers approached Stephen’s car, assuming Stephen’s pistol was still holstered, the officer’s initial volley of gunfire reflected indifference to the risk of Stephen Willises’ death.”

The San Joaquin Valley Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) filed an amicus brief in support of the Willises and are warily content that the Ninth Circuit heard the collective pleas for justice in this case. Although this case also sought to hold Chief Dyer and the City of Fresno accountable for their supervisory responsibility over Fresno’s police force, such did not specifically materialize in this case.

Even so, the decision by the Ninth Circuit reveals that all who hold positions of authority and discretion in Fresno can be held accountable for their actions. In this case, Judge O’Neil was reversed in part for some of his errors and Catton and Astacio will ultimately have to face the consequences of their actions.

It’s unfortunate that what happened to Willis could well have happened to any one of us, but it is just as important to recognize that incidents like it are much more likely to happen in a Fresno apartment complex than in one of our neighborhoods near, say, Woodward Park. Fresno police need to be respectful of the lives of all residents, and their supervisors need to ensure that.

*****

Daniel Luna is an attorney who helped MAPA file its amicus brief.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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