Family of victim killed by since-fired LAPD officer awarded $1.7 million
After deciding this week that a former Los Angeles police officer fired for dishonesty was liable for killing a man, a federal jury Wednesday awarded the victim's family $1.7 million.
Joseph Cruz killed Mohammad Usman Chaudhry early on a March morning in 2008, when Cruz and his partner encountered the 21-year-old autistic man lying in the bushes alongside a Hollywood apartment building.
Since the killing, Cruz has insisted that Chaudhry tried to attack him with a knife and that he fired his gun in self-defense. On Monday, however, after four days of testimony, the jury rejected Cruz’s account when it returned a unanimous verdict finding that the ex-officer had used excessive force and acted in “a reckless, oppressive or malicious manner” when he shot Chaudhry.
During the trial, lawyers for the Chaudhry family presented evidence aimed at putting doubt in the minds of the jurors over Cruz’s account. Testing on the knife that Cruz said Chaudhry had used, for example, found one person’s DNA profile on the handle and blade but showed that the DNA was not Chaudhry’s.
After the verdict, the jury was asked to decide how much money, if any, to award Chaudhry’s parents. Attorneys representing Cruz and the city of Los Angeles had tried to limit the size of the award by arguing that Chaudhry had had a frayed relationship with his parents that lessened their suffering.
Lawyers for the family countered that the parents cared deeply for their son, despite the strain on the relationship caused by his autism.
“We’re very pleased. I think the jury saw the truth in this case,” said Olu Orange, an attorney for the family. “This was about restoring the honor of this family’s son.”
Orange called on the city, and specifically Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to forgo an appeal.
“In light of the findings of the jury on the facts of this case, I hope Mayor Villaraigosa would apologize to the Chaudhry family on behalf of the city, accept the verdict and not put the family through further trauma over the loss of their son," he said. "If the city doesn’t, they’ll just be spending more taxpayer money to defend a dishonest cop.”
John Franklin, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office, declined to comment on the verdict or whether the city would appeal. Peter J. Ferguson, who represented Cruz, could not be reached immediately for comment.
The award punctuates the awkward role the city played in the case. After the shooting, the LAPD fired Cruz for dishonesty in an unrelated case. At the time, lawyers for the city argued that Cruz had destroyed his credibility.
During the trial, however, the LAPD and city attorney’s office tried to persuade the jury that Cruz was, in fact, credible and that his account of the shooting should be believed.
-- Joel Rubin
Follow Joel Rubin’s coverage of the LAPD on Twitter at www.twitter.com/joelrubin