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Willis Case Forces Fresno to Pay $824,495 in Legal Fees and Costs

After two straight losses, the city of Fresno loses yet again in the U.S. District Court. Five years ago, two Fresno policemen were accused of using excessive force in the shooting of Stephen Willis and now the city must pay $824,495 in legal fees.

The jury found that not only did Greg Catton, former Fresno police officer, use excessive force but that he was also negligent in causing Willis’ death. Originally $1.51 million was awarded to Willis’ family, but the jury also ruled Willis contributed to his own death by being intoxicated at the time of the shooting, leaving his family with only $302,000 in damages.

In 2009, Willis’ parents sued the Fresno Police Department, arguing their son was simply taking his revolver, which he used at the target range earlier that day back to his apartment. On the other hand, the Police Department claimed Willis initiated the shooting by firing at Catton and another officer named Daniel Astacio. Although U.S District Court Judge O’Neill ruled that the officers used reasonable force in 2011, the decision was overturned by the Ninth Circuit appellate court which ordered the officers to stand trial.

At trial, the officers’ attorney, James Weakley said, “[T]he city shouldn’t be held liable because the officers feared for their lives and that Willis caused his own death by having a 0.29 blood-alcohol level…[T]he officers had to make a split-second decision to shoot Willis to ‘stop the threat.’” However, the prevailing attorneys argued that the officers didn’t know Willis was intoxicated, nor did Willis fire his revolver, which was proved by a Fresco police crime-scene technician.

The city was surprised when ordered to pay the legal fees since Willis was found to be 80% responsible for his own death. City officials expressed confidence that they wouldn’t have to pay. “In fact, [they] wanted Willis’ family to pay its legal bills.”

In contrast, U.S. Magistrate Judge Barbara McAuliffe says “San Francisco attorneys Walter Walker III and Peter Koenig prevailed in the key part of the trial – the wrongful-death claim – and city officials should ‘bear their own costs.’” Judge McAuliffe believes her ruling sends an important message, in that it causes citizens to reassess their police department and “warn law-enforcement officers not to treat civilians unconstitutionally.”

So far the Willis case has cost the city $1 million in legal fees, an amount which could increase if the city decides to appeal. Such an appeal is currently being evaluated.

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