A San Jose jury Tuesday acquitted a California state narcotics officer of manslaughter in the February 2003 shooting death of Rudy Cardenas. While on a stake-out aimed at bringing in a parole violator, Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement officer Mike Walker mistook Cardenas for his target when the 43-year-old Oakland resident drove by in his van and took off in hot pursuit. The chase ended on foot in a downtown San Jose alley, where Walker shot the fleeing, unarmed man in the back.
While Walker and the jurors quickly left by a back door, an angry crowd confronted Walker attorney Craig Brown as he attempted to address reporters on the court house's front steps afterwards. About two dozen angry people scuffled with deputies and shouted "no justice, no peace" and "murderer" as Brown attempted to address reporters. He was shortly led by a bodyguard of deputies.
The verdict was "completely unfair and unjust," said Regina Cardenas, 27, the victim's daughter outside the courthouse. "The evidence was overwhelming. That's why we're so surprised. I don't know how this could happen. Given the evidence, we didn't think that a not guilty verdict was a possibility at all."
"He shot a man who was running away. A man who didn't have a gun. He was unarmed," was how Deputy District Attorney Lane Liroff put it during closing arguments in the eight-week trial. Walker had shown "reckless misconduct" that day, Liroff said, telling jurors "this isn't even a close call."
But after two days of deliberations, the jurors reached a different conclusion. Afterward, jurors told reporters they were sure of their verdict. "We have a lot of doubts about the whole incident, but we have no doubts about our decision," said juror Mike Krey. "We are not saying that Mike Walker is innocent -- we are just saying that the prosecution did not hurdle the burden of proof that the shooting was unjustified and that Mike Walker did not think he was in imminent danger."
From the beginning, Walker claimed to have thought he saw a gun in Cardenas' hand. No gun was found. Cardenas was carrying a folded pocketknife, which was found in his pants pocket. "Mike Walker's testimony was very consistent from day one – not perfectly, but more than less," Krey said. "Right at the time of the shooting, he's saying 'gun, gun, gun...' We couldn't say he did not see a gun, that the threat wasn't imminent and that (the shooting) was not justified."
Deputy DA Liroff said afterward that juries just don't want to convict police officers. "It is an unfortunate reality that jurors give a greater benefit and are more indulgent of a police officer." But still, the police had been put on notice, he said. "Law enforcement has to know they don't have free rein."
Liroff wasn't the only one thinking Walker got a free ride from the jury. "Some of those jurors have strong ties to law enforcement," Regina Cardenas told DRCNet. "During jury selection, at least four of them said they would have a hard time convicting an officer. They said they didn't believe an officer would lie under oath. But this case was so blatantly obvious – my father was unarmed and shot in the back while running away. If a cop can get away with something like this, they can get away with anything."
"I'm still scratching my head over the verdict," said attorney Richard Konda of the Coalition for Justice and Accountability, a community group formed after the police killing of a San Jose woman in her kitchen a year earlier. "It seemed to me there was a compelling case that should have led to a guilty verdict," he told DRCNet. "I guess if you are a police officer, you are judged by a different standard. C'mon – he was running away and he shot him in the back!"
Konda didn't fault the prosecution for lack of effort. "They put one of their most experienced prosecutors on this case during both the grand jury and the trial," he said. "The DA put on a very strong case. I think it just comes down to the jury is biased; it's just hard for people to convict a police officer and even harder for them to admit they're basically just letting him off."
If prosecutor Liroff and the Cardenas family and its supporters were unhappy with the verdict, the state's top law enforcement officer was not. While California Attorney General Bill Lockyer extended sympathy to the family, he defended Walker and the verdict in a written statement. "The death of Rodolfo Cardenas was a tragedy, and my sympathies go to his family. But the jury reached the correct verdict in acquitting Special Agent Mike Walker," Lockyer said. "Under the circumstances, Agent Walker acted in accordance with his training and his best judgment of a perceived threat. That is why he was appropriately acquitted."
The Cardenas family found no justice Tuesday, but the battle isn't over. They have already filed two civil lawsuits against Walker and the agencies involved. And they will continue to demand justice, not only for Rudy Cardenas, but for all the victims of unjustified police violence.
It's not about the money, said Regina Cardenas. "I would trade all the money we might win to see Walker behind bars. We would rather have justice served than knowing we have a system that does not work."
While Cardenas said she was pleasantly surprised by the support of groups like the Coalition as well as members of the community, she also told DRCNet she had been receiving hate-filled emails from pro-police elements. "A cop got away with murder again, and I've been getting e-mails saying my father got what he deserves and he should rot in hell. I've traced some of them back to law enforcement agencies. That's just sick."
There is no return to normal life for Cardenas and the rest of her family now, she said. "I had never been involved with this kind of community action before. The people who did support us were very compassionate and got involved and we've become friends. And we will continue to fight for justice. Once you've gone through this, you can't ever go back to your life as it was."