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Attorney Questions Officers' Actions in Fatal Shooting : Trial: Lawyer says police wrongly considered only lethal action against man with a toy gun. The jury begins deliberations today in $5-million civil suit.

March 10, 1993|LILY DIZON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Two police officers who fatally shot a 20-year-old Garden Grove man who pointed a toy gun at them should be held responsible for the death because they shot to kill rather than to maim or to disarm the man, an Orange County Superior Court jury was told Tuesday.

Furthermore, jurors should find that officers Mark Van Holt and Roger Keyesover overstepped their authority when they shot at Dennis Paul Gonzales an "unnecessary" 15 times on the night of Jan. 29, 1989, said attorney Kurt Kupferman.

But the lawyer for the two officers countered during closing arguments of the civil trial that his clients' actions were "proper" because police officers are trained to shoot if they ever felt their lives were threatened.

"And once you decide the officers can fire once, the number of shots isn't an issue any more," attorney Bruce D. Praet repeatedly told jurors.

The jury was to begin deliberations this morning. They must decide whether the officers, the city of Garden Grove and its Police Department are blameless or if they committed a wrongful death, were negligent, and caused emotional distress to Gonzales' parents, who are seeking $5 million in damages.

Before closing arguments, Van Holt, who was with the Garden Grove Police Department at the time of the shooting, testified that he fired at Gonzales because he thought Gonzales was going to shoot at him first.

Van Holt, who now works with the Los Alamitos Police Department, told jurors that he fired after Gonzales, then 20, ignored his warning to raise his hands, and instead, grabbed the gun that was tucked in his waistband.

"I was staring at the gun in his hands. . . . I couldn't believe he was actually pulling a gun on me," Van Holt said. The officer said that he fired two shots at Gonzales before taking several steps backward and tripping over a cat-scratch pole.

As he fell, he fired several more shots in the direction of Gonzales, Van Holt added.

Keyes testified Monday that he began shooting at Gonzales because he thought Van Holt had been wounded.

It wasn't until afterward, both officers testified, that they realized Gonzales' black gun was a plastic replica.

Keyes testified that he believed Gonzales "was going to kill me next," so he began firing his own semiautomatic 10 rounds from two clips in a matter of seconds.

After Gonzales dove behind the sofa, Keyes said he continued firing into the couch because, "I believed if he stood up, he'd kill me."

Gonzales was shot six times, and two of the bullets proved fatal, a coroner's official testified during the trial.

Kupferman argued that Keyes, a Vietnam veteran and a member of the Green Berets, is too experienced and should have known better than to continue firing.

He blamed the officer for not warning Gonzales and for not telling him they were police officers, even though they were in full uniform.

"They didn't bother; they didn't care. . . . They simply said, 'I had the right to shoot and shoot to kill,' " Kupferman said in his closing summation.

Praet argued that his clients didn't have a choice. They thought it was either their lives, or Gonzales', Praet said. "These real shooting situations are not like the movies," he said. "These officers are neither trained nor paid to get killed."

An investigation by the Garden Grove Police Department and the Orange County district attorney's office found that the shooting was a justifiable use of deadly force.

Times staff writer Mark Pinsky contributed to this report.

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