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Victim's Family to Get Millions

Jurors grant award in the death of a Mexican farmhand. He was shot by a Huntington Beach officer in a case of mistaken identity.

May 17, 2003|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

A federal jury on Friday awarded $2.1 million to the family of an 18-year-old Mexican farmhand killed by a Huntington Beach police officer two years ago in a shooting that authorities later admitted was a case of mistaken identity.

After deliberating about four hours, the panel granted Antonio Saldivar's family $1 million to compensate them for the loss of his life, $1 million for loss of his comfort, and $100,000 in lost financial support and to reimburse them for funeral expenses, said their attorney, Ray Brown.

The jury denied punitive damages after the 3 1/2-day trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, finding that Officer Mark Wersching did not act with reckless disregard for his safety and others' when he gunned down Saldivar on a dark street corner in the Huntington Beach's Oakview neighborhood on May 5, 2000.

Brown said the family was satisfied despite the split verdict.

"We're ecstatic. It's an excellent result and an appropriate one," he said.

"It was an unnecessary shooting. It didn't have to happen."

Neal Moore, Wersching's attorney, said that he was surprised and disappointed by the verdict.

He said he agreed that the shooting was a tragedy and expressed sorrow for Saldivar's family, but said that he believes Wersching acted reasonably and in accordance with his training in a difficult situation.

Moore said that he will have to talk to the city before deciding whether to appeal.

Police at first said that Wersching gave chase after he and a patrol partner spotted Saldivar peering suspiciously into a car about 1:30 a.m, and that he was shot after he pointed what turned out to be a toy rifle.

Further investigation revealed that Wersching was chasing another man, lost him briefly during a chase through backyards and over fences, and then came across Saldivar clutching the toy.

The Orange County district attorney's office decided not to file criminal charges after finding that Wersching reacted reasonably.

The shooting ignited anti-police protests in the poor and predominantly Latino neighborhood of Oakview, and led to marches on City Hall.

Some residents complained of police heavy-handedness. Others lodged accusations of racism.

During this week's trial, Wersching acknowledged from the witness stand that he never identified himself as a police officer, but rather only asked Saldivar to show his hands, in both English and Spanish, before opening fire.

A ballistics specialist and an expert in police conduct were among the witnesses Brown presented to challenge Wersching's version of what happened.

Wersching, who was sworn in as a Huntington Beach officer in 1996, remains the subject of two excessive-force lawsuits pending in federal courts.

In one case, Edward Rezek says he was wrongfully arrested and brutalized by Wersching on Oct. 24, 1998, after leaving a theater on a date. In the second case, Brandon Matteson said he was wrongly arrested Oct. 26, 1997, on suspicion of public drunkenness after a bar fight involving several of his friends.

Moore has denied the allegations in both cases and said his client will be vindicated.

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