After a grueling two weeks as Juror #6 in the civil suit Banta v. Walnut Creek et al, there is a lot to say about what went wrong that led to the unnecessary fatal shots to young Anthony Banta. The jury was only asked to judge if the second volley of shots fired by Sgt. Sugrue and Officer Ezard were excessive use of deadly force.
First, thoughts about the jury. Eight people were selected. I don’t know why we did not have twelve, and there were no alternatives. We assumed it was agreed to by both parties, and our focus was on the single issue put before us. The jury selection process was excellent, in my opinion, though this is the first time I have ever been through the process. A group of 40 to 50 people were screened.
Throughout the trial we were instructed not to discuss the case with each other or anyone else. To my knowledge, all of us obeyed the rules. Until the moment jury deliberation began, the only comments we had were about the jury selection experience and our thankfulness that this judge seemed to be very good – he kept the trial moving forward with minimal redundancy. Attorneys for both parties were repeatedly told to move on when witnesses had already been asked and had answered questions more than once in different ways, and he was fair and respectful about correcting questions when the questions posed were convoluted.
As to why we the jury were only allowed to decide on the second volley of shots, I cannot speak for others, but I was very dissatisfied about that. A lot of things went wrong that night, and I believe with all my heart Anthony’s death could have and should have been prevented.
None of us believed that Anthony lunged toward the officers. At most, he tried to get up, after the first volley shattered his right femur and injured his left shoulder. Was there time for the officers to regroup and try a different tactic to safely take him into custody? Yes, there was. The only reason that the feather came down on the scale for the defendants (the two officers who fired the second volley) was because it was more probably true that the officers believed two victims upstairs might be bleeding to death after they were engaged in a struggle and the line went dead (the call to 911 was disconnected).
The only evidence that the officers might have known the two people upstairs were okay, was that the dispatcher had said, before they entered the unit, “suspect is known to them, his name is Anthony.”
We learned that Anthony was 5 feet 5 inches according to the Coroner’s Report, and approximately 130 pounds. He was petite.
I was never convinced that the four officers who responded to the 911 call were forthcoming about their memories of that night. All four gave a different version of events and there were a lot of “I don’t recall” answers. The excuse for that was, as it always is, that it all happened very fast and they had a lot of adrenalin in their systems. But let me interject here, because I have been through traumatic events when my life was in immediate danger and everything happened very fast, and for me, forty years later, every detail is as clear as if it happened yesterday. So I don’t buy “I don’t recall” and I do not believe that they told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. As a juror, it is my right and my duty to decide whether or not a witness is telling the truth. So I am stating for the record, I did not and do not believe the officers told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I hope that puts the fear of Karma in them. We all reap what we sow. There is a justice system that no one can escape forever.
Why, then, did I vote to excuse them for the second volley of shots? Because there was no evidence or testimony proving that they knew going in that the two people upstairs were okay. If they did know that they were okay, there was no reason to rush. One of the expert witnesses, Roger Clark, testified that in his experience (and he has a lot) the officers could have and should have put some distance between themselves and the suspect, that they did have time and were morally and legally obligated to re-assess the situation and try a less lethal way of disarming the young man. As he described it, “Distance plus cover equals time.” There were four handguns ready to fire, was it really necessary to shoot? In my judgment, having heard all the testimony and having looked at the forensic evidence, it was not.
As I stated in my blog immediately after the verdict, the only reason I conceded that it was reasonable is that it seemed more probably true that they believed the two people upstairs could be bleeding to death.
There were four officers who entered the apartment and crowded at the bottom of the stairs with four guns pointed at one little man with a big knife. I will grant them that it was scary. I will grant them that a big knife can be thrown and can maim you. But why did all four of them crowd at the bottom with guns ready to fire? Was that necessary? Shouldn’t the commander, Sgt. Sugrue, tell one of them to try to find out if the people upstairs were bleeding or okay?
One of the officers was trained in psychology and crisis intervention tactics. Instead of practicing her training, she and Sgt. Sugrue yelled repeatedly at the suspect, who was obviously not in touch with reality. I believe that Sgt. Sugrue reacted to the suspect as an “intruder on drugs”. If I am to believe every word out of his mouth, it never occurred to him that the suspect might be deaf or having a mental breakdown.
Sgt. Sugrue described Anthony’s appearance as “zombie like” and “crazy” eyes and said it was the scariest thing he had ever seen, even in horror movies. Note that he spent time in Iraq and had other military experience. I sincerely doubt that this little guy’s “crazy” eyes is the scariest thing he’s ever seen. I suggest he has PTSD and should be required to learn how to manage it better. From what I saw and heard while he was on the witness stand, being a patrol officer on the graveyard shift is probably not the best use of his skills and bravery.
Long story short, I am very disappointed in the way this whole situation was bungled, from the moment the 911 call was received to the way the officers failed to diffuse the crisis. I am writing this because I want to see improvements across the country in the mandatory training and procedure guidelines for handling a mental health crisis. What happened to Anthony Banta could happen to any of us, any young adult, any teenager. Our peace officers must be better trained and better equipped. How about tranquilizer darts? They work for tigers and bears!
I hope that the four officers who confronted Anthony Banta’s “crazy” eyes will take it upon themselves to get trained better and practice situations dealing with someone who may be having a mental breakdown. I also hope that the dispatcher(s) who failed to relay vital information to the officers will learn to listen and communicate better. The word “sleepwalking” was never mentioned, though it was one of the first things the 911 caller reported, “Anthony is sleepwalking again.”