By Alex Goldsmith and Tina JensenPublished: Updated:
ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - For three years, the Albuquerque Police Department has maintained that 27-year-old Christopher Torres, who suffered from schizophrenia, grabbed an officer's gun when he was shot three times in the back by another officer.
Tuesday, a state court judge ruled the officers' version of events doesn't add up.
Judge Shannon Bacon awarded the family $6 million in damages in their state civil lawsuit, saying the two officers committed battery, which caused the wrongful death of Torres.
"His name has been vindicated and justice, thank God, prevailed," said Renetta Torres, Christopher's mother.
In April 2011, Detectives Christopher Brown and Richard Hilger went to the Torres' home with an arrest warrant for Christopher on a road rage incident.
When no one answered the door, the officers, who were wearing street clothes, said they heard someone in the backyard and then hopped the fence to talk to Torres.
The officers claimed there was a struggle and that Torres grabbed Hilger's gun, so the other detective, Brown, shot Torres three times in the back.
That's the story the city told for three years.
"That is the situation that we all wake up in a cold sweat over," Darren White, former Albuquerque Director of Public Safety, told reporters at the time. "Someone was able to get our gun from us, and then what do you do? You're in a fight for your life."
In a 20-page ruling, Judge Shannon Bacon said the officers did not act in self-defense when they punched and shot Torres.
"There is no credible evidence that Christopher Torres grabbed Detective Hilger's gun out of the hidden, inside-the-pants holster, held it in a firing position and threatened either of the Detectives," she wrote in her findings.
She said officers' testimony was inconsistent and contradicted both the physical evidence and the testimony of the neighbor, who witnessed part of the incident.
That neighbor called 911, afraid Torres was being robbed and attacked after seeing the two men with Torres. She was the only eyewitness, but was never interviewed by APD.
Bacon also said if they had done any research before showing up to the Torres house, they would have learned about Christopher's condition and that he had a Crisis Intervention Training officer assigned to him.
In addition, they violated SOP by not turning on their lapel cameras.
"Now there's a finding from the court that they did not tell the truth," said Torres family attorney Randy McGinn. "They made up a story to cover up shooting an unarmed man who was in his pajamas, in his backyard, playing with his dog."
Because of a state statute, the city is only required to pay out $400,000 of the $6 million in damages.
The case now moves to federal court, where the city could be on the hook for the $6 million, plus, much more in punitive damages.
The family says they never wanted to go through years of lawsuits, they just wanted APD to make changes.
They say they made numerous attempts to mediate with the city, hoping the case would ultimately lead to real reform and policy changes, not just monetary damages.
"Three years ago, I reached out to the Mayor," said father Steven Torres. "We weren't answered, we were ignored."
Despite the judge's findings today, District Attorney Kari Brandenberg says she has no plans to re-open her investigation, in which she decided the officers were justified.
The family is still hoping for a criminal indictment at the federal level.
"If anybody else in this room would have done these things that they did to my brother, we'd all been arrested, we would have a Grand Jury convene," said Matthew Torres, Christopher's brother. "We would have been indicted and facing felony charges if any one else were to do this."
The two officers are still on the streets and have not been disciplined in the three years since the shooting.
"Our question is, what are they going to do now? Are they going to do something to punish these officers? Because they sure should," McGinn said.
"If they don't, they're sending a message to everybody else: That we're going to cover up for you."