Federal jury returns $10M verdict in Riverside County DIS case
The family of a man who was fatally shot by a Riverside County sheriff’s sergeant trying to arrest him for attempting to attack people — including the lawman — with a club and baseball bat was awarded $10 million by a federal jury, it was announced Thursday.
The family of 36-year-old Clemente Najera sued the county and Sgt. Dan Ponder for the 2016 shooting based on excessive use of force in violation of Najera’s civil rights, specifically those guaranteed under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, according to court documents.
Following a trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the jury on Wednesday found the county and Ponder liable and unanimously awarded the plaintiffs the $10 million.
“I am very pleased with the jury verdict,” attorney Dale Galipo said. ” I think the jury’s verdict speaks to the value of human life and the need for accountability when officers use excessive deadly force. I am particularly happy for the three children of Mr. Najera.”
The county Executive Office released a statement to City News Service on Thursday saying that, while the county “respects the legal process,” the jury verdict was unjustified.
“In light of the substantial evidence presented that the deputy was acting in lawful self-defense against an individual armed with multiple weapons and advancing on the deputy, we are disappointed by the decision,” the EO stated. “The county is considering all available options to determine next steps.”
According to the plaintiffs, trial evidence ran contrary to the official account of events the day of the deputy-involved shooting.
Galipo said Najera had “turned away from Sgt. Ponder, and despite Ponder recognizing that (Najera) was no longer a threat, (he) continued shooting at him, fatally striking him twice in the back.”
The defendants’ original points and authorities, submitted to the court in 2019, provided a detailed narrative of what transpired based on Ponder’s recollections and those of at least a half-dozen witnesses.
According to the document, on the late afternoon of April 15, 2016, Najera had been spotted by numerous people, including Cal Fire personnel, walking through a Lake Elsinore neighborhood, wielding a club, allegedly using it to knock over mailboxes and smash car windows.
When he reached the home of Irma Munoz, at 308 Heald Ave., Najera allegedly threatened the woman and her sister, both of whom bolted inside the residence with others and locked the front door, at which point the suspect “circled the house, breaking windows,” the narrative stated.
Why the residence was targeted was never established.
Munoz’s brother, Jose Orozco, grabbed a baseball bat and went outside to confront Najera. Another neighbor crossed the street, carrying two bats of his own, but he quickly placed them under shrubs at the front of Munoz’s house in an effort to de-escalate the situation, according to the defendants’ filing.
At the time, Ponder, who was the sheriff’s Lake Elsinore station watch commander that day, was the only deputy available to handle calls because the other four units on patrol were tied up with investigations.
Responding to 911 calls from Munoz and others, the lawman encountered Najera in front of the woman’s residence, menacingly holding the club and focusing on the neighbor who had put his two bats under the shrubs. The neighbor stood with his hands up, asking Najera in Spanish to calm down, the defendants said.
Ponder drew his sidearm, but kept it pointed down, in the “low ready position,” while he ordered the suspect to drop the club, maintaining 10 to 12 feet separation and removing his pepper spray from its holster, according to the narrative.
Ponder made several calls for “Code 3” assistance from any unit, but he did not hear an acknowledgement. He continued ordering Najera to drop the club, which the man was “holding in a batter’s stance … facing Sgt. Ponder,” the narrative said.
“Ponder and some of the witnesses also heard Najera verbally refuse to comply,” the document stated.
The sergeant tried twice to discharge his pepper spray cannister into Najera’s face, but the distance and wind mitigated the impact. Najera then put down his club, appearing ready to surrender, but picked up one of the two bats that had been hidden in the shrubs and “moved quickly toward Ponder … in a batter’s stance,” according to the defense.
When Najera was roughly seven feet away, the sergeant “fired six rounds … aiming at the front center mass,” the narrative said.
The suspect dropped to the ground after the last bullet was fired and died on the spot. Ponder was not injured.
“A subsequent autopsy showed some of the gunshots entered Najera’s front side, while some entered his rear side at a steep, sideways angle,” according to the narrative.
An explanation for Najera’s behavior was not provided.