Sanders lawsuit hinges on a moment
Council must weigh limits on testimony as it considers a settlement
Nathaniel Sanders II was an 18year-old with a growing criminal record who, according to court documents, might have helped burglarize a jewelry store hours before an Austin police officer fatally shot him last year.
Leonardo Quintana, who had been on the force for nearly nine years, used tactics before shooting Sanders that a consultant deemed so “reckless” that they may have been criminal. He was fired after a drunken driving arrest this year.
But in federal court, jurors would probably hear little — if any — of that evidence as they consider a lawsuit filed by Sanders’ family against Quintana.
Soon before a trial was set to start this month, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks granted a flurry of requests that limits from the courtroom certain information that could benefit one side — while hurting the other. He agreed with lawyers that some revelations, although already made public, could unfairly tilt the case.
As Austin City Council members decide Thursday whether to support a controversial $750,000
settlement, legal experts say they must calculate the risk of going to trial with a case now resting almost entirely on the final moments of the May 11, 2009, encounter between Sanders and Quintana.
Although information about Sanders’ history and the highly publicized results of an outside review by KeyPoint Government Solutions may have played well in the court of public opinion, the case in federal court would ultimately hinge on whether Quintana used excessive force and violated Sanders’ civil rights, experts and those familiar with the issues said.
Should attorneys want to introduce certain matters, Sparks has ordered that they first discuss it with him — out of the earshot of jurors.
With the decision a day away, most City Council members still have not publicly said how they will vote on the controversial settlement. Should they reject the measure, it would be the first time council members have walked away from a proposed settlement in any type of case in recent years.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell said Tuesday that he is “pretty sure” he will not support the $750,000 settlement.
Council Member Mike Martinez said last week that he would not vote for it and thinks evidence in the case — from witness statements to forensic reports — should be fully disclosed in court.
“In our country, one of the more public and honored means of settling these matters is a public trial,” he said in a statement.
Officials for the politically powerful Austin police union, which endorsed all but one of the current seven council members, have opposed the proposal, saying that they think a settlement would leave the impression that Quintana erred in the shooting.
However, Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and some local ministers have said they think Sanders’ family should be compensated for their loss.
Neither Adam Loewy, who represents the Sanders family, Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez, a private attorney hired by the city to represent Quintana, or city lawyers will discuss evidence in the suit.
A voluminous court file also gives no specific road map to the cases they would present — although motions filed by the Sanders family attorney suggest they have witnesses and experts who would testify that Sanders and Quintana never struggled and that Sanders’ hands were in the air when he was shot. Quintana’s lawyer disputed those claims in writing.
But much of the court file focuses instead on the type of information both sides want left at the courtroom door.
The Sanders family filed its suit in federal court about three weeks after the shooting.
Quintana fatally shot Sanders outside the Walnut Creek Apartments on Springdale Road while investigating whether a car Sanders was in was linked to a series of crimes.
Officials have said Quintana fired after struggling for a gun with Sanders, who had been asleep in the back of the Mercedes-Benz. The shooting ignited unrest among some spectators, who broke out windows of police cars.
A Travis County grand jury declined to indict Quintana on any charge. Police Chief Art Acevedo suspended him for 15 days last year for not activating his patrol car camera but did not discipline him for his tactics or use of deadly force.
According to the Sanders family lawsuit, which named the city and Quintana as defendants, Quintana “overreacted and without justification pulled out his gun and began shooting Nathaniel Sanders II.” The city was accused in the suit of tolerating unconstitutional conduct by officers and keeping those “with violent tendencies” on the force.
Last month, the city prevailed in a request to Sparks to dismiss it from the suit, saying that there was no evidence to validate such claims.
However, the city is responsible under state law for representing and paying damages against police officers who are sued “for action taken while operating within the course of and scope of their job,” city lawyers said in a written response to questions.
A trial in the case was set to start July 19. Sparks took it off his docket after the city and Sanders’ family said they had reached a tentative settle- ment.
As the trial date loomed, Quintana’s attorney sought to limit how much could be discussed about the KeyPoint report, which city officials had declined to release until May. Sparks agreed to limit that testimony — the document was highly critical of Quintana — but his order remains under a protective seal.
In the court file, documents show that Quintana’s lawyer began an effort two months ago to keep certain statements from seeping into testimony. That included opinions from an expert hired by the Sanders family that Sanders and Quintana did not struggle for a gun and that Sanders did not have a gun in his hands when he was shot.
Court documents also said four witnesses reported that Sanders had his hands in the air when he was shot.
“This opinion is based on total speculation,” Icenhauer-Ramirez said in his request about the expert.
He also wrote that some opinions by Louis Akin, an Austin private investigator whose website says he specializes in shooting reconstructions and blood pattern analysis, do not meet the requirements for admissibility of expert evidence.
The Sanders family attorney has since dropped Akin as an expert witness.
In June, Sparks also supported a request by Quintana’s lawyer to limit information about Quintana’s drunken driving arrest in January, which came hours after he had been questioned in a deposition for the case.
“Defendant Quintana was required to give a sample of his breath and urine on the day of the shooting,” Icenhauer-Ramirez wrote. “There was no alcohol found in his system. Any attempt to interject these subjects into evidence would merely be an effort to prejudice the jury against the defendant.”
Sparks granted that request.
Most recently, Loewy successfully sought to limit the amount of information that would be disclosed about Sanders’ history, including his alleged gang affiliation and claims that he stole watches the night of the shooting.
“Sanders’ criminal record has absolutely nothing to do with these claims and if the record is introduced, it will create unfair prejudice in the trial,” Loewy wrote in his motion.
Even with limits on the kind of testimony that may be heard, many jurors might already be aware of those highly publicized issues, people familiar with the case said.
That could pose challenges to both sides, they said.
They said the city could perhaps be most injured by pre-trial publicity, including information about bias in an internal investigation into the shooting and the city’s willingness to negotiate a proposed settlement — then possibly reject it.
If the case focuses on the moment of the shooting, the Sanders family could suffer from not being able to widely discuss Quintana’s tactics.
Experts said settling can sometimes make the most sense.
“When you go to trial, you are losing control of the case,” said Alex Albright, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas Law School. “You are giving it to the jury, and you don’t know where they are going to come out.”
Detroit attorney Michael Rataj, who has represented police officers accused of wrongdoing and victims of excessive force, said juries frequently tend to side with officers. They understand the dangers of the job, he said, and often support the officers’ decisions to use force if they felt their lives, or the life of another, was at risk.
“They have to make splitsecond decisions,” Rataj said.
Still, Patrick Woolley, another UT law professor, said if the case is settled, it should not be assumed that the city was accepting blame.
“You can believe that you have a very strong case, and it might nonetheless make sense to settle,” Woolley said.
Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder, left, and Austin Police Association President Wayne Vincent talk Tuesday about a new partnership they have formed to promote good will between the city’s minority community and police department.