Judge Reverses Trial of Cop Who Was Found “Innocent”


Elizabeth Warmerdam | Courthouse News Service

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The Ninth Circuit ordered a new trial Wednesday after a jury that heard inflammatory evidence sided with the Anaheim, California, officer who shot Manuel Diaz to death in 2012.

Diaz, 25, was killed after a short foot chase by police on July 21, 2012, sparking days of violence and street protests in Anaheim.

Nicholas Bennallack, the officer who fired the fatal shots, testified that he suspected Diaz was in a gang based on the way he dressed. Based on his experience in the area, he believed criminal activity was afoot.

Though Bennallack said he feared Diaz had a gun and was preparing to shoot him, authorities did not recover another firearm at the scene. One of the bullets Bennallack fired Diaz passed from his right buttock to his left thigh. The other entered just above and behind Diaz’s right ear, exiting out the other side of his head.

Genevieve Huizar, Diaz’s mother, tried to hold Anaheim and Bennallack liable for excessive force and other claims, but a federal jury ruled for the defendants after a six-day civil trial in March 2014.

The Ninth Circuit reversed that decision on Wednesday, saying an error in the trial’s layout caused the jury to hear inflammatory evidence that may have improperly shaped their verdict.

By failing to split the liability phase from the compensatory-damages phase, U.S. District Judge James Selna allowed the jury to consider material that was not relevant to whether Bennallack used excessive force, the appellate panel found.

Selna had deemed evidence regarding Diaz’s gang affiliation and drug use relevant as to damages because the evidence could undermine the strength of his mother’s love for him and their relationship.

In making that ruling, however, Selna conceded that the evidence was irrelevant as to liability because Bennallack was not aware of either Diaz’s gang affiliation or his drug use at the time of the shooting.

Wednesday’s reversal notes that these pretrial rulings nevertheless failed to keep the jury from being “exposed to a copious amount of inflammatory and prejudicial evidence with little (if any) relevance.” (Parentheses in original.)

Counsel for Bennallack was permitted to offer photographs of Diaz’s gang tattoos, and Diaz holding a gun in his left hand and making a gang sign with his right hand.

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