The judge is right. A jury should decide if Stanislaus County Deputy Justin Wall committed a crime when he shot and killed Modesto’s Evin Olsen Yadegar two years ago.
Wall’s defense team had hoped the judge might conclude, at Thursday’s close of a preliminary hearing, that the deputy with an otherwise spotless record was simply protecting other officers when he fired four times into the car of an unarmed, mentally troubled woman.
We’ve seen that outcome — no accountability for officers killing people — many times, all over the United States, prompting outrage, marches, protests verging on rioting, kneeling at football games during the national anthem. Here in Stanislaus County, District Attorney Birgit Fladager has prosecuted only one officer this decade: former Sheriff’s Detective Kari Abbey, who shot and killed a woman in an off-duty confrontation in 2010. A judge found that Abbey fired in self-defense and dismissed a murder charge.
Two weeks ago, Fladager’s counterpart in Sacramento County refused to charge two Sacramento policemen who shot unarmed Stephon Clark eight times in his grandparents’ back yard, leading to more protests, the arrests of 84 marchers including pastors and journalists covering the event, and politicians and the police chief calling for calm and patience. The Sacramento Bee reported that District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert has not prosecuted even one officer among those who have shot 33 people in that county since January 2015.
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But while the outcomes for both Clark and Yadegar were the same — both ended up in the morgue — there were distinct differences.
Clark had researched suicide, assumed a shooting stance and advanced on officers, Schubert said. The policemen saw light, apparently from the cell phone in his hands, and thought Clark was firing a pistol at them.
Officers in Ripon and from Stanislaus County, including Wall, didn’t know Yadegar had stopped taking medication for bipolar disorder and was probably suffering a mental crisis when she had a pre-dawn confrontation with a security guard at a Salida hotel.
With her tires blown by spike strips, Yadegar led them on a freeway pursuit that did not exceed 35 mph. She got off in Ripon and did not obey commands to halt. When she finally rolled to a stop, they tried to box her in, and seven officers approached her car, guns drawn, one restraining a police dog as another bashed in her driver-side window. She backed up momentarily to miss Wall’s vehicle, then veered off as all the officers backed away, except one. Ignoring department policy, Wall came forward and fired.
Whatever else was or wasn’t in Yadegar’s mind, she was not trying to commit suicide by cop. She had not gunned it in reverse and wasn’t trying to run over officers. She clearly did not deserve to die.
Several officers involved that night testified in Wall’s defense at the hearing, assuring the judge that they too feared for their lives. But all of them managed to remember department policy:
Shots fired at or from a moving vehicle are rarely effective. Deputies should move out of the path of an approaching vehicle instead of discharging their firearm at the vehicle or any of its occupants. A deputy should only discharge a firearm at a moving vehicle or its occupants when the deputy reasonably believes there are no other reasonable means available to avert the threat of the vehicle, or if deadly force other than the vehicle is directed at the deputy or others.
Then-Sheriff Adam Christianson in 2018 said Wall’s actions were “objectively reasonable” and opined, “It’s time to stop blaming law enforcement for society’s problems.” Authorities initially said Wall fired to keep the car from backing over officers. Only later, when Ripon police dash cam footage was released, did we learn that Wall opened fire after she started forward.
Stanislaus deputies are on track, finally, to begin wearing body cameras in two weeks, Sheriff Jeff Dirkse says. Footage from such incidents not only helps protect the innocent from police brutality, it also protects officers from those who falsely claim it. The sheriff should go a step further and bring dash cams to deputies’ patrol vehicles.
Recently, police in New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas loosened their shooting policies, not because firing into cars suddenly is a good idea, but specifically to give authorities another tool to stop terrorists from mowing down pedestrians.
The Washington Post reports that officers shoot and kill about 980 people nationwide each year. In a recent 2 1/2-year span, including the time Yadegar was killed, police across the country fatally shot at least 193 people inside vehicles, of which 76 (presumably including Yadegar) were not armed.
So San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar is to be commended for having the courage to prosecute a fellow peace officer from a neighboring agency.
San Joaquin Superior Court Judge Xapuri Villapudua is to be commended for sending the matter to trial.
It’s not for her or us to say whether Wall is guilty of split-second poor judgment under uncommon pressure, or voluntary manslaughter. That’s for 12 people to decide.