SoCal Cops Are Still Defending 39-Bullet Barrage on Unarmed Man

Illustration by AlGae

Having spotted a vehicle-code violation they believed deserved a near-midnight investigation in November 2013, Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) cops stopped a purple Mazda Protege containing three black residents allegedly because of defective license-plate illumination. Officers patted down the occupants and found no weapons. However, Tyler Woods, one of the passengers, gave false identification and fled when a cop expressed suspicion. An airborne officer eventually spotted Woods leaping 12 feet from one three-story building to another before resuming flight westbound on Nebraska Avenue with excited police in foot pursuit. At least five cops, a police helicopter and a K-9 unit surrounded the 19-year-old as he tried to climb to the roof of an apartment building by gripping a gutter with both hands and pulling himself up while ignoring commands to stop.

The righteousness of what happened next is being considered by presidentially appointed federal judges. Without observing Woods possessing a weapon or hearing him threaten anyone, officers John B. Fagan and Daniel A. Martinez decided they feared for their lives, according to their post-shooting reports. They fired as many as 39 shots with .45-caliber potency in less than 30 seconds, both pausing only to reload and renew firing while not a single volley came their way. The suspect, who was pronounced dead at the scene, had been unarmed.

According to the cops, they’d continued to shoot because Woods—who grew up in harsh conditions but dreamed of becoming a Hollywood actor and enjoyed bowling, horseback riding and swimming—exhibited supernatural, bullet-resistant powers. Fagan claimed, “My first shots [from a Sig Sauer P220] seemed to have no effect on him and he was still a threat.” Verifiable forensic science indicates otherwise.

Louis Pena, a veteran pathologist with the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office, determined that 19 bullets—six of them individually devastating enough to kill—riddled Woods’ tall, slender body. One shot struck his left eye, crashed into his brain and fractured his skull. Other “sharply upward” shots slammed into his stomach, lungs, liver, ribs, bladder and small bowel. Eight bullets penetrated the target’s back, left arm, hip, leg, shoulder and right buttock. Pena labeled the carnage a homicide. In nearly two decades of performing autopsies in a region with one of the highest murder rates in the nation, he’d rarely seen so many bullet wounds in one corpse.

With good reason, California cops are allowed to use lethal force when facing imminent danger. But the state’s police-union-dominated politicians in both major political parties have crafted related laws giving officers overly generous wiggle room. The pre-shooting danger can be imaginary. But, at least theoretically, the fear isn’t supposed to be ridiculous or a lie.

To justify their “self-defense” bombardment, Fagan and Martinez said they imagined Woods intended to retrieve a firearm from the waistband of his gray sweatpants as he climbed from the gutter. Never mind that such a move would have been inexplicable because the suspect carried no weapon and police were screaming as well as pointing guns at him.

“What I saw is [Woods’] body was starting to, to turn, as well as one arm starting to come up toward his chest, as if he was getting ready to pull out what I thought would be a gun from his waistband,” Martinez recalled in an April 2015 deposition reviewed by the Weekly.

Given the claim was, at a minimum, self-servingly erroneous, LBPD worked to muddy up Woods. They argued that even though the victim hadn’t been armed on the night of his killing, he’d once carried a gun during a prior, unrelated carjacking. They also publicized the dead man’s tattoos as proof he’d belonged to the 62 East Coast Crips criminal street gang and issued a press release falsely declaring he’d menacingly advanced on the supposedly frightened officers even after being mortally wounded on the rooftop.

But attorneys for the victim’s parents and minor son fought back. “Without warning, Fagan and Martinez proceeded to assault and batter Tyler Damon Woods by acts that included, but were not limited to, repeatedly and unjustifiably discharging their department-issued firearms at him, inflicting several gunshot wounds that proved to be fatal,” a civil-rights-violation lawsuit declared. “Following the shooting, the involved officers denied medical care to Woods in a manner that demonstrated deliberate indifference to his constitutional rights. . . . At no time during the course of these events did Woods pose any reasonable or credible threat of violence.”

Though an LBPD review by then-chief Jim McDonnell called the shooting “out of policy,” taxpayer-funded lawyers representing the cops attacked the excessive-force lawsuit. In one of their court filings, they argued the officers’ “conduct did not shock the conscience” because they had not acted “with deliberate indifference” to Woods’ life and their use of force “was related to a legitimate law enforcement objective.” They also said Martinez and Fagan deserved immunity for their actions because they are cops.

In June 2016, following a multiday trial, a unanimous jury determined that by killing Woods, the officers violated his son and parents’ constitutional right to familial relationships. They were awarded $2.95 million. John Fattahi, their attorney, stated the outcome represented growing community sentiment against police brutality, adding, “Enough is enough.”

The Long Beach City Attorney’s Office asked Virginia A. Phillips, the presiding trial judge, to overturn the verdict. A “reasonable police officer confronting the same or similar situation” would have blown Woods away, too, officials proclaimed. But Phillips disagreed, backing the jury.

“In spite of evidence that suggested Woods was not a threat to anyone’s safety and could not have escaped the apartment complex, both officers decided to use lethal force against him, firing several volleys of ammunition,” she ruled. “Dr. Pena’s testimony suggested the defendants continued to shoot Woods after he had fallen down and turned away from them. . . . The jury, therefore, reasonably could have found the officers’ conduct went beyond any ‘legitimate law-enforcement objective.’”

Nonetheless, the cops, who’ve won unsurprising prosecutorial protection from charges, aren’t giving up. They’ve asked a panel at the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit—judges William A. Fletcher, John B. Owens and Barry T. Moskowitz—for relief from Phillips and the civil jury. A ruling is expected soon.

R. Scott Moxley’s award-winning investigative journalism has touched nerves for two decades. An angry congressman threatened to break Moxley’s knee caps. A dirty sheriff promised his critical reporting was irrelevant and then landed in prison. The U.S. House of Representatives debated his work. Federal prosecutors credited his stories for the arrest of a doctor who sold fake medicine to dying patients. Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.

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