Justice at Last?
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Sonoma County’s last ditch appeal to keep Sgt. Erick Gelhuas from facing trial (“Denied,” June 26). The Iraq War veteran has been charged with the wrongful shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez as the boy walked down a neighborhood street with a toy rifle. This is the fourth failed appeal, which has thus far cost the county some 4 million in taxpayer dollars.
In a desperate attempt to save face, Assistant Sonoma County Sheriff Clint Shubel said, “We want to get clarity and guidance from the courts.” Four court decisions against granting immunity to Gelhaus couldn’t be more clear. The U.S. District Court in Oakland, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, a second denial for a rehearing with the Ninth Circuit and now the Supreme Court have all turned down the case.
Judge Milan D. Smith of the Ninth Circuit found that “a reasonable jury could find that Gelhaus’ use of deadly force was not objectively reasonable. . . . 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.”
When Gelhaus is on the stand, jurors will hear of his many writings for SWAT and other paramilitary magazines about how police can justify killings. In one, he wrote: Law enforcement is a contact sport. If you find yourself in the kill zone, you need to turn on your mean gene. . . . Today is the day you may need to kill somebody in order to go home.”
A jury will see Gelhaus’ videotaped deposition in which he said that Andy “didn’t turn towards me when I shot him.” He also admitted that he doesn’t know if Andy’s gun was ever pointed at him. In a video deposition, Gelhaus is shown replicating Andy’s stance with the toy gun in his left hand and turning to the point when he fired off eight rapid shots in six seconds at the boy. Andy’s rifle was pointing straight down toward the ground.
A jury will also hear the testimony of Jeff Westbrook of Santa Rosa who, two months before Andy’s death, was pulled over by Gelhaus for failing to signal a lane change. Gelhaus pulled a gun on Westbrook as he walked up to the car and Westbrook felt so troubled by the officer’s demeanor that he asked, “Sir, is there something wrong with you? “Westbrook later said, “I felt like I was watching somebody I needed to help.” His complaint to Gelhaus’ superior officer was ignored.
Most observers agree the county has already lost this case and their best bet will be to keep Gelhaus off the witness stand and settle the case without further delay. Perhaps now the Lopez family will at long last see the light of justice in this unspeakable tragedy.
I am continually aghast at the vehemence people can harbor against changes they don’t like (Open Mic, June 20). I live in an adjacent neighborhood to Carmen’s, had been there only a few times in the 13 years I’ve lived within walking distance of it and won’t miss it. The Starks are decent, hard-working people who have repeatedly given back to the community, and I wish them the best of luck in their new venture. Life moves on people, get over it.
Write to us at [email protected].