Just five hours after four San Francisco police officers were cleared of excessive force in the shooting death of Alex Nieto, his parents and advocates crammed into the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts and held a post-verdict gathering decrying what they said was a police cover-up.
“The city of San Francisco spent millions of dollars on a scam,” said Benjamin Bac Sierra, one of the main spokespersons for the Justice for Alex Nieto Coalition. Standing on a chair and emphasizing each phrase with a pointed fist, Bac Sierra said the physical evidence in the case was on Nieto’s side and that a mostly non-white jury played against him.
“The truth is that we are in a skewed racist system,” he said. “Justice is a big ass scam.”
Nieto was killed in March 2014 after four San Francisco police officers mistook his taser for a pistol and fired upon him at Bernal Heights Park. Nieto carried a taser for his work as a security guard.
The four were cleared of any wrongdoing by a jury on Thursday after eight days of trial that saw contradictory witness testimony. The key witness for the plaintiffs — who said Nieto never took his hands out of his pockets — admitted on the stand that he was an alcoholic with difficulty remembering specific details.
And the defense presented data downloaded from Nieto’s taser that recorded three trigger-pulls matching the time of the shooting, though that evidence was challenged in court because it required a recalculation by a technician with the taser company.
That recalculation was enough for some to claim the police concealed the truth.
“This case blew the cover off a police cover-up,” said Adriana Camarena, one of the main advocates for the Nieto family and a daily presence at the trial. Loud applause and shouts of “Lies!” and “Lying!” accompanied her statements on the purported conspiracy.
“Another jury, an unbiased jury, a fair jury” could have ruled with the Nietos, she said.
While advocates hammered the city, Nieto’s parents were more reserved. They shook hands with and hugged the dozens of people they’ve come to know since the shooting death of their son, giving brief speeches in Spanish after being called up by Bac Sierra.
“I don’t know what happened at the end, that everyone was with the police,” said Refugio Nieto, Nieto’s father, of the jury’s decision. He repeated concerns that the jury was not diverse — of the eight jurors, none were Latino or black — and said he could not fathom the jury’s verdict.
“That’s what I don’t understand,” he said with wet eyes before handing the microphone to his wife.
“With this whole process I discovered how my son died,” said Elvira Nieto, Nieto’s mother. She said the trial brought a sense of closure and expressed gratitude for new friends made in the two years since the shooting.
“For me I’ve gotten to know all of these beautiful people,” she said. “We have here a victory because we’re all together. That is a victory, that we are all here together.”
Retaking the microphone after his wife’s words, Refugio Nieto spoke about seeing pictures of his son’s autopsy during the trial and pointed to the places Nieto had been shot — in the temple, through the lip, in his torso.
“It’s a shame,” he said. “It’s a shame on the city.”
More than a hundred people filled the atrium of the center and spilled out onto Mission Street for the event. A “blessing to the four directions” squeezed dozens of people against the walls as they circled up, turning to each of the cardinal directions between short prayers and blows of a conch shell. Dozens more huddled outside in the rain, where drummers performed and dancers danced.
Christopher Muhammad, a minister of the Nation of Islam involved in the Mario Woods, gave an impassioned speech pledging to strengthen partnerships between minority communities in the city.
“We have to now come together and force consequences,” Muhammad shouted at the packed room, some of whom raised their fists in the air. “This moment must lead to a movement.”
The shooting death of Woods sparked immediate protests in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point and citywide, prompting the mayor and the police chief to announce use-of-force reforms and a federal investigation into racism within the police department.
But supervisors like David Campos and John Avalos have said the reforms come two years too late and that they should have been instituted when Nieto was killed.
Speaking before the speeches on Thursday, Campos said that as a lawyer he respects the jury process but that “there are still many questions that remain open about what happened here” and that the Nieto verdict does not erase the need for use-of-force reform.
“This verdict does not change the need to reform the San Francisco Police Department,” he said. “Every aspect of operations of the police department needs to be reformed. We don’t need a verdict to tell us that.”