Teenager Shot in Back by Police Says He Was Wrongfully Targeted


An 18-year-old Exeter man paralyzed after he was shot by police in April is recovering in a San Jose hospital while his attorney is demanding Tulare County law enforcement file charges against his client, release information about the incident or drop the case.

On April 26, Adonis Serna says he borrowed a car from friends to visit his 1-year-old son in Woodlake. Detectives from the Woodlake and Exeter police departments stopped him on Sequoia Avenue near Woodlake High School.

Serna’s borrowed car had been reported stolen out of Porterville. Detectives say Serna backed the SUV into to their unmarked car in an attempt to get away. He says the SUV was actually turned off at the time.

Officers opened fire. The U.S. Department of Justice recommends police refrain from shooting into moving vehicles unless someone inside is shooting at them, but none of the agencies involved would discuss the case or explain the officers’ actions.

Serna, who talked to the Times-Delta/Advance-Register from his hospital bed in San Jose, said he never saw red and blue lights and didn’t know he’d been shot by police officers until he woke up from a coma three weeks ago.

At the time, he says, the only thing he knew was he had been shot.

The Tulare County District Attorney’s Office has not filed any charges against Serna, either related to the stolen vehicle or the officers’ allegation he backed into them.

The DA has declined to comment on the allegations against Serna or the result of the officer involved shooting investigation, as both cases are ongoing. However, officers who opened fire are back at work.

Both agencies have so far refused to name the officers involved, although courts have ruled in similar cases that identification is required under the California Public Records Act.

When Serna’s defense attorney, Doug Hurt, asked prosecutor Rajesh Chabra why charges hadn’t been filed, he said Chabra told him there was “insufficient evidence.”

“Irony is not the right word. Horror and hypocrisy are better,” Hurt said. “A couple of police officers could decide in 30 seconds or a minute to try and kill someone, thinking he might have done something wrong, and in the light of day after reviewing all of the evidence, all of the police reports, all of the statements by the officers, they still can’t figure out if there’s enough evidence to show that he did anything. There’s something wrong with that picture.”

Hurt said that his client is not gang affiliated and to his knowledge has never been arrested or convicted of a crime.

“He’s a good kid,” he said.
Birthday wishes

A week before being shot in the back five times, Serna was celebrating his 18th birthday with family and friends.

Although he wasn’t excited to blow out the candles and make a wish, he was looking forward to graduating high school in June and spending more time with his son, Isaiah.

He hasn’t seen his son in more than three months because he was in a coma.

He missed the chance to walk beside his classmates during graduation.

And doctors believe he may never walk again.
$10 in gas and a lifetime of regret

On April 26, Serna gave his friend $10 in gas money to borrow a car. He drove straight from his home in Exeter to Woodlake, he said.

Serna refuses to name the friends he borrowed the SUV from.

Serna spotted a man he knew near the high school. He said he parked the car and turned the engine off. Then he said he heard a crash followed by gunshots.

“They just told me to throw the keys,” he said. “They dragged me out and I hit the ground…It went dark.”

Emergency crews rushed him to Kaweah Delta Medical Center. He was later transferred to San Jose’s Regional Medical Center, which specializes in spinal injuries.

He has been resuscitated three times, according to his mother, Veronica Serna. The last time doctors told her to expect the worst.

“When a doctor tells you there’s nothing you can do for your child, it’s awful,” Veronica Serna said. But, she said, “it wasn’t his time.”
Police say they were in danger

Woodlake and Exeter police officers were assisting Tulare County sheriff’s detectives with an auto theft investigation when they tried to stop Serna, Woodlake Police Chief Mike Marquez said at the time.

“There were a lot of factors that came into play as a result,” Marquez said during an April interview. “One of the factors was officers fearing for their safety and their life.”

At the time of the shooting, officers said they yelled commands for Serna to stop but he rammed into their car.

“It’s unknown as to why he did that,” Marquez said. “He stopped the car. Officers exited and attempted to approach, at which time he put the car into reverse and tried to strike the officers.”

Hurt said prosecutors have confirmed to him that officers were in plain clothes, driving an unmarked vehicle and their lights were off prior to the shooting. Serna says his engine was off when police fired. He was unaware they were even in the area, he said.

Despite Hurt requesting evidence be preserved, he said he was informed by prosecutors the vehicle Serna was driving has since been returned to the owners and turned over to a Fresno-based salvage company.

“That’s shocking,” Hurt said. “The position where the police shot this man is critical.”

A spokesman for the Visalia Police Department, the agency tasked with investigating the criminal portion of the case, declined to comment on whether the vehicle had been returned to its owners.

Sgt. Damon Maurice referred all questions to the respective agencies.

“I can’t release details involving the criminal or administrative investigations,” Marquez said.

Marquez and Exeter’s interim police chief, Jeff McIntosh, would not provide further details.
The waiting game

The district attorney has reviewed all the evidence in the case, said Hurt, who will likely represent Serna in a civil lawsuit against the police officers.

“How can you decide to execute someone in a moment when two months later you can’t even bother to file charges?” he said.

Hurt sent a letter to the DA in May requesting prosecutors turn over all of the evidence. Chabra has refused to turn over evidence, Hurt said. He said he has even offered the DA the chance to interview his client in exchange for evidence.

Legally, prosecutors don’t have to give defense attorneys evidence until charges have been filed, Hurt acknowledged.

When asked what charges Serna could face, prosecutors declined to comment. Hurt believes his client could face charges of assault on peace officers using a deadly weapon, auto theft, or possession of stolen property.

Possession of stolen property is typically a misdemeanor offense and is challenging to prove, said Tulare County attorney Maggie Melo, who has no connection to the case but commented on general questions about the law.

“There has got to be an affirmative action that the suspect knew it was stolen,” she said.

The DA has three years to file felony charges. The next court hearing is scheduled for July 19.
Federal best practice

Over the past five decades, law enforcement agencies across the nation have implemented policies restricting officers from shooting into a moving vehicle.

In December, the San Francisco Police Commission approved a use-of-force policy including such a ban. Despite opposition from the police union, the policy passed unanimously.

The ban was recommended by the Department of Justice and The Police Executive Research Forum, officials said.

PERF is an organization made up of police chiefs and other law enforcement officials.

PERF’s 2016 Guiding Principal of Use of Force report recommended that when officers are put in situations where the suspect is only armed with a car, the threat is not immediate, said Chuck Wexler, PERF executive director.

Officers have time to consider more methodical, organized approaches that may involve bringing additional personnel and resources to the scene, he said.

If officers are properly trained to respond to this type of call, hundreds of lives per year might be saved, Wexler said.

“For each life that is saved, there is a police officer who will not have to endure the emotional trauma and professional turmoil associated with being involved in a fatal shooting,” he said.

Those who support the ban believe the chances of hitting the target are greatly reduced when aiming at a moving target. If the suspect is hit, and the car is left without a driver, the public is in danger.
A family holds onto hope

Veronica Serna was shocked by the news her son had been shot by police.

“I didn’t believe it,” she said. “My kids can tell you I’ve always told them to respect authority. If a cop tells you to get down on the floor, you get down on the floor. If he tells you to dance, you dance for the cop. He has a badge and a gun.”

The family’s trust in law enforcement has been shattered.

“I’m confused. This is just wrong,” she said. “It’s our town — we’ve been living there forever. Now it’s scary. We don’t have the money to move out of there.”

Serna was planning to attend College of Sequoias next year. He wanted to put school on hold to spend a year with his son.

“From the moment he found out he was going to be a father he was so happy,” Veronica Serna said. “His son is his whole life.”

She believes Isaiah is who brought her son back to life. The family hopes Isaiah keeps Serna going as he faces a difficult rehabilitation process, which could take three more months.

Even then, bullet fragments will remain in his body and doctors say he will be paralyzed for the rest of his life.

But Veronica Serna has faith her son will walk again.

“They also told me he was going to die,” she said. “There’s no reason for him to be paralyzed. That’s going to ruin his life. He’s not even going to play with his son.”

Source: http://www.visaliatimesdelta.com