This week's question comes from Riley H. of San Francisco:
Q: "I read the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case with disbelief. How is it that an unarmed man can be shot and killed by a person who isn't even a policeman? Are we going to start shooting aggressive panhandlers?"
A: This question is timely in more than one sense as our country deals with the social and racial tensions that now flow into the streets. I am involved in a trial in Stockton where an unarmed, mentally disabled Pakistani man (A.A.) was fatally shot by an armed messenger (J.Z.) who worked for Guarda, an armored car service. The basic facts: A.A., 25 years old, with no prior criminal history and suffering from a manic episode (he had bipolar disorder), pulled into a Bank of the West parking lot in Stockton and parked at an angle in two spaces. His pregnant wife was in the car, unaware of what was happening.
At the same time, J.Z. pulled into the lot in a large armored truck. J.Z., trained to drive by if anything looked askew, was concerned with the badly parked car and the man standing beside it in a "suspicious manner." Disregarding his training, he had the driver stop the vehicle, exited and began staring at A.A. because he thought A.A. was trying to make him feel "small, belittle him, demonstrate control over the situation, threaten him and make him feel week." All this from a look.
At this point, ego became involved — guns and ego don't mix. J.Z., trained to leave if he felt this way, decided instead to show he was not weak and jogged past A.A. into the bank. While inside, A.A. came into the bank and, again, J.Z. started a "staring contest" with A.A. thinking that something was "wrong with him, he didn't look right."
Instead of leaving as trained, he nodded his head and said "What's up?" to A.A. because, "I didn't want him to think I was a punk." A.A. walked down the row of teller windows to the far end and asked a teller, in a normal voice, "Give me your money." She said "What?" to which he replied, "Give me your money." She said she couldn't as the cash can was locked, and he turned and said, "I'll take her money," pointing to another teller.
J.Z., aware of what was happening, again violated his training to not act as a protector of others and to leave if there was any possibility of a robbery. As A.A. approached the second teller, she pulled the cash off the counter and A.A. then said, "I'll take his money," pointing at J.Z. and the exit. J.Z. had been told that "the money was not worth killing over or dying for," and was trained to reduce the risk of danger by giving over the money if asked or by throwing it off to the side. He chose not to and, instead, created a showdown.
Multiple witnesses said A.A. never showed any weapon, made no threat of violence, and only said, "Give me the bag." As A.A. approached, J.Z. testified, he held his left hand out toward A.A. and said "Stop." This testimony revealed that the hand J.Z. held out was the one holding the bag, the item A.A. was asking for. As A.A. bent forward to reach for the bag, J.Z., without any warning, pulled out his 9 mm Glock and fired one bullet into A.A.'s upper abdomen. The bullet perforated an artery and lodged into A.A.'s sacrum, showing he was bent over at more than a 45-degree angle at the time he was shot. A.A. had never touched the courier, nor had he threatened him or anyone with harm. He was just mentally ill and wanted the bag (containing approximately $3,000).
As A.A. lay on the ground dying, the guard jumped over him and said "If you move, I will blow your [expletive] brains out." Photos show the guard holding his belt like he was in an old Western movie. One witness called it the coolest thing he ever saw, like a video game.
The district attorney didn't have the courage to charge the case, so the family hired a trial lawyer to seek justice and better training for armed guards.
Our claim, wrongful death, is based on the negligence of the guard (shooting an unarmed, nonviolent, mentally disabled man) and the failure of Guarda to train armed couriers on how to deal with mentally ill people.
In essence, there was one person capable of making decisions in the bank that day, J.Z., and he violated every rule of his training, creating the ultimate showdown to prove he was not a punk. Their defense was self-defense — "a reasonable fear of bodily harm or death." We made a decision to try the case in front of a judge out of fear of racial bias against our clients, the wife and child of the deceased. To read more, go to Dolanlawfirm.com and search "A.A. trial."
Next week, more on when shooting is justified and California's own Stand Your Ground (tough guy) Law.
Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.