A federal judge on Monday set October 22, 2018 as the trial date for a civil suit brought by the family of police shooting victim Luis Gongora Pat against the city and the two San Francisco police officers involved.
The trial will come more than two years after the April 7, 2016 anniversary of the fatal encounter between Gongora Pat, a homeless man and immigrant from the Yucatan, and Sergeant Nate Steger and Officer Michael Mellone at a Shotwell Street homeless encampment.
On Monday, more than a dozen people including advocates in the anti-police brutality movement and the parents of Alex Nieto, who was shot by police in 2014, gathered at the federal courthouse on 450 Golden Gate Ave. in a show of support for Gongora Pat’s family.
During the hearing, presiding Federal Judge Thelton Henderson wondered why the trial date, which was mutually agreed on by the attorneys from both sides, had been set so far out for “an incident that took all of ten minutes.”
The attorneys attributed the trial’s delay to their schedules. San Francisco Deputy City Attorney Sean Connolly, who is representing the officers, told Henderson that there are a “number of officer-involved shooting lawsuits pending in this court.”
Adante Pointer, the civil rights attorney representing Gongora Pat’s family, is also currently representing the mother of Mario Woods, the victim of another controversial police shooting that took place some five months before Gongora Pat’s death.
“As you know from other officer involved shootings that have made it to court, it’s a very long road,” Pointer told the group of supporters after the hearing.
Pointer and Connolly estimated that the civil trial will span a week. In the some 20 months leading up its start date, Pointer said that his office will be interviewing witnesses, reviewing videos, and getting “police practice experts” in order to prove that the shooting was “a murder that should not have taken place.”
Pointer said that he anticipates a “lot of fights between here and then, between myself and the city, in trying to get information and do what we need to do.”
During the hearing, Pointer said that there has been no discovery in the case, referring to a pre-trial procedure in which evidence can be obtained from the opposing side by way of interrogations or requests.
The city, said Connolly, will not disclose any information until procedure for a protective order, meant to shield certain information from the public, has been agreed upon.
“As many of you know police officers enjoy a lot of protections and legal shields that keep information from being made available to the public,” said Pointer. “I’m sure we will have a disagreement over how much information and which documents should even be protected.”
Another obstacle is Henderson’s impending retirement. The renowned civil rights lawyer and educator informed the attorneys during the hearing that he will step down in August and that his replacement will likely be assigned to the case at random.
Henderson told Pointer and Connolly that he would consider a list of preferences for his replacement, and the attorneys discussed whether they would like to suggest U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins, who also presided over the Nieto civil case.
Pointer said he hopes that whoever will ultimately sit on the bench will be a “fair judge who will actually allow the fact to come out and who will allow us to tell our story and will work to make sure that the process in and of itself is fair.”
After the hearing, several activists seeking police reform and accountability in the shooting inquired about the jury selection process and whether Gongora Pat’s life as an immigrant and homeless man in San Francisco would be an experience reflected by the jury’s makeup in an effort to prevent bias.
“Will the jury pool be the same as in the Nieto case? What’s the geographic boundary?” David Carlos Salaverry, one of the founders of San Franciscans for Police Accountability, wanted to know.
The Nieto family lost their civil trial after the jury in that case unanimously exonerated the four police officers involved: Sergeant Jason Sawyer and officers Roger Morse, Richard Schiff and Nathan Chew.
Pointer told the group that potential jurors will be pulled from cities in California’s Northern District, which stretches north to the Santa Rosa, south to San Jose and east to Pleasanton.
On the day that Gongora Pat died, police were called to his encampment after receiving reports of a man armed with a knife by homeless outreach workers. Video footage that captured the shooting peripherally showed that the fatal encounter unfolded in less than a minute.
Steger and Mellone first fired four rounds of non-lethal bean bag bullets followed by seven gunshots at Gongora Pat because they feared for their lives after the latter charged at them, swinging his knife.
But the accounts of a number of eyewitnesses who said that Gongora Pat was sitting on the ground with the knife in his waistband dispute this narrative. An autopsy report indicated that several of six bullets that killed Gongora Pat entered his body from behind.
Since Gongora Pat’s death, activists have rallied for justice in his case and for police reform.
On the upcoming anniversary of Gongora Pat’s death, activists are planning a protest march against “police terror in the sanctuary city,” said writer and activist Adriana Camarena.
Carlos Poot Pat, the slain man’s cousin, called the day in court “sad.”
“To hear that this will take so long…and not not knowing what will happen, is hard for us,” he said.