High Time

After second court loss, Sonoma County must settle Lopez case

Sonoma County’s case in defense of sheriff’s deputy Sgt. Erick Gelhaus against the Andy Lopez wrongful-death suit has now failed in two appeals to higher courts.

The latest came last week from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found powerful evidence that “Andy did not pose an immediate threat to law enforcement officials and therefore the law was clearly established at the time of the shooting that Gelhaus’ conduct was unconstitutional.” Gelhaus has already said under oath that he did not know if the gun Andy was holding was pointing at him or even coming up to point at him.

Just two months before, Gelhaus had instigated another troubling incident. After pulling over a motorist for failing to signal a lane change, he approached the driver, Jeff Westbrook, 60, and immediately drew his weapon. Westbrook found Gelhaus’ agitated demeanor highly disturbing and, with his arms up in the air, asked, “Sir, is there something wrong with you?”

“I felt like I was watching somebody I needed to help,” he said later. The sheriff’s office did not follow up with Westbrook’s report of the incident.

Mr. Gelhaus was an infantry squad leader in Iraq in 2005. There are many accounts of veterans returning from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq with PTSD symptoms that include hypervigilance, irritability, aggressive and reckless behavior, and exaggerated startle response.

Marylou Hillberg, a criminal defense attorney and member of the Criminal Justice Act panel in California’s Eastern District, says that Sonoma County has few options. She says a rehearing with the 9th Circuit has less than a 2 percent chance of being accepted, and filing to the Supreme Court would “really be pissing away taxpayer money on attorney fees, as this isn’t a case the supremes would take on or should take on.”

If the case goes to trial, defense costs would be exorbitant, she says. The county has already spent or committed nearly $2.5 million taxpayer dollars for outside attorneys in an effort to kill the Lopez case.

It’s high time to stop throwing away good money after bad! Reason demands that the county bring about an immediate and fair settlement with the Lopez family so that the fourth anniversary of Andy’s death, coming up on Oct. 22, won’t be more of the same, but rather just might herald the first light of justice in this tragedy.

Kathleen Finigan is an activist and founding member of the Police Brutality Coalition and active in the Community Action Coalition.