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LAPD chief urges appeal of $5.7 million jury award to paralyzed felon

September 22, 2012 |  5:18 pm

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck on Saturday recommended that the city appeal a jury's decision to award $5.7 million to a convicted felon left paralyzed in a police shooting after he was allegedly involved in a drive-by shooting.

Beck said the jury was not able to hear key evidence in the case of 26-year-old Robert Contreras, who was shot by police at age 19 and left a near-quadriplegic after trying to run away from officers responding to the drive-by shooting.

Among the evidence: the fact that Contreras was a known gang member, pleaded no contest to attempted murder for his role in the drive-by shooting, and a statement from another man in the van with Contreras who told authorities that Contreras left the vehicle armed with a gun, a Police Department statement said.

"I am very disappointed by the jury's award in this case," the police chief said in a statement. "Tragically for the people of Los Angeles, important facts were not allowed into evidence in this case.

"Had the jury been permitted to hear all the facts, I am sure the outcome would have been quite different," Beck said. "I urge the city attorney's office to pursue an appeal in this case."

The jury's decision compensates Contreras for injuries he suffered one night in September 2005, when several officers on patrol in South Los Angeles responded to a report of a nearby shooting. As they arrived, witnesses pointed to a white van speeding away and said people inside the vehicle had let off a volley of gunfire while driving by. After a brief pursuit, the three men inside the van jumped out and scattered.

Officer Mario Flores and Det. Julio Benavides, also a police officer at the time, chased Contreras into a dark driveway. When Contreras allegedly turned toward them with an object in his hand, the officers opened fire, hitting him multiple times in the side and back. Contreras had been holding a cellphone.

The officers told investigators afterward they had seen a gun in Contreras' hand as he bolted, but an extensive search of the area turned up no weapon.

Contreras, who was left a near-quadriplegic with some use of his arms, was convicted in 2009 for his role in the drive-by shooting and sentenced to seven years in state prison. Released on parole last year, he filed a federal lawsuit against the city, charging that the officers used excessive force and violated his civil rights.

The jury unanimously found in favor of Contreras. Faced with a second trial to determine how much money the city would have to pay to cover Contreras' extensive medical care costs and the pain he suffered, lawyers for the city agreed with Contreras' attorneys to a $4.5-million settlement.

The notion of making a multimillionaire out of Contreras, however, did not sit well with members of the City Council. An internal LAPD inquiry had cleared the officers of wrongdoing, and the proposed payout amounted essentially to an admission that they had done something wrong, Councilman Paul Krekorian and other council members said.

Despite warnings from city lawyers that a jury could award more than double the settlement amount, the council rejected the deal in an 8-4 vote.

The second trial, which ran for two days last week, was largely a fight over the amount and cost of the physical therapy, medical care and general assistance Contreras will need for the rest of his life. While medical experts presented by Contreras' lawyer argued that he would need a round-the-clock attendant and expensive machinery to help him move, the city countered with its own experts who said far less was necessary.

Deputy City Atty. Craig Miller said Contreras had failed to work aggressively on his rehabilitation and would have more mobility and independence if he did so. The attempts by his attorney to portray him as a near-invalid were a "sympathy ploy," Miller told jurors.

Krekorian defended the council's decision to rejection settling with Contreras.  "If the city has to pay some more to show that we stood up and supported our police officers when they did nothing wrong then so be it," Krekorian said. "It's money well spent."

The payout could increase even more if the judge orders the city to pay attorneys' fee for Contreras.

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-- Rong-Gong Lin II and Joel Rubin

File photo: Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck in 2011. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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