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Jury Award in 1981 Shooting Is Reduced to $1.6 Million : Courts: Judge rules that teen-ager was partly to blame for his death because he fled arrest. After 11 years, youth's mother is impatient for the case to end.

March 22, 1992|EMILY ADAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COMPTON — A Compton woman whose teen-age son was killed by police in 1981 should get only about two-thirds of the $2.3 million awarded to her by a jury, a Superior Court judge ruled last week.

Judge Henry Shatford said the jury award was excessive, and the boy, who was fleeing police after a car chase, was partly responsible for the shooting.

Even though the judgment was cut to about $1.6 million, Luis Velasquez's mother, Irma Velasquez, said she would be happy to see the 11-year-old case against Compton finally put to rest.

"Here I am for 11 years, waiting and waiting and waiting," she said. "I don't know why the city doesn't make its insurance company come out and settle with me. Why doesn't anyone help me?"

Velasquez, her attorney and lawyers for the city's insurer all declined to say whether they plan to appeal the judge's decision.

Luis Velasquez, a 16-year-old junior at Dominguez High School, was killed Jan. 8, 1981, after Compton police officers heard gunfire near Kelly Park and saw a youth carrying a rifle join two other people in a Cadillac.

As the car sped away, officers Jasper Jackson Jr. and Brett Garland chased it. After a few blocks, the Cadillac ran out of gas and sputtered to a stop.

Jackson and Garland ordered the three people inside the Cadillac to freeze, but Luis Velasquez told his companions that he intended to escape on foot, said Irma Velasquez's attorney, John C. Taylor.

What happened next was the subject of two civil trials. Officers reported that Velasquez got out of the car, turned to face them, reached toward his waistband and acted as if he were going to use the car door for cover.

Velasquez was shot three times when officers fired in self-defense, Jackson and Garland said.

However, witnesses said the youth was running away from the officers. An autopsy showed that Velasquez had been shot in the back of his head, the back of his leg and in the forearm.

Irma Velasquez sued the city and the two officers, but Jackson and Garland were later dropped from the case. Seven years passed before the first trial in May, 1988. The jury decided that the city was at fault but deadlocked on other points in the case, prompting Irma Velasquez to seek a new trial.

The second trial began last December. After three days of deliberations, the jury returned on Jan. 3 and awarded Velasquez $2.3 million, among the highest civil judgments in the state against a police department for the wrongful death of a minor, Taylor said.

Even with the jury's decision, Irma Velasquez had little hope of obtaining the award, Taylor said. Attorneys for Central National Insurance Company in Omaha, Neb., which insured the city of Compton, offered Velasquez $850,000 to settle the case on March 10 after Judge Shatford indicated that he might reduce the award.

"They were saying, 'Accept the $850,000 or we'll see you three years down the line in appeals court,' " Taylor said. "In the meantime, Mrs. Velasquez has become paralyzed and can no longer work."

Irma Velasquez, a former community specialist with the Compton Unified School District, became disabled in 1983 after falling and injuring her leg in a hotel lobby in Monterey. She now lives on Social Security payments, she said.

Last month, Taylor wrote to council members, chiding them for their "unflagging pursuit of justice" on behalf of the family of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl killed by Korean grocer Soon Ja Du in Los Angeles.

"I guess that some of you who receive media coverage almost daily on the Ja Du matter are more concerned about keeping the insurance company happy than with seeking justice for all your constituents," Taylor wrote.

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