Jury Acquits California Agent in On Duty Shooting
By Yomi S. Wronge
Mercury News via Knight Ridder
At first, half the jurors who acquitted state drug agent Mike Walker of manslaughter Tuesday thought the state narcotics agent might be guilty of a crime. But eventually they all agreed he was justified in shooting Rodolfo ``Rudy'' Cardenas because he felt threatened.
The verdict, which prompted a brief scuffle outside the courthouse between law enforcement officers and protesters, angered Cardenas' family and local civil rights activists. The state attorney general and other law enforcement officials said the jury had justly supported an officer involved in a split-second decision during a chase in downtown San Jose in February 2004.
``Frankly I just think it was an `honest mistake,' but at what point does an honest mistake become a felony? That's what we wrestled with,'' said jury foreman Mike Krey, a 51-year-old journalist from Campbell.
Krey said Walker's insistence that he saw a gun in Cardenas' hand -- even though one was not found -- was the biggest factor in convincing jurors he genuinely believed he was threatened.
The six-man, six-woman jury deliberated for a little more than two full days before reaching their verdict in the first case involving a California state drug agent charged with killing someone in the line of duty.
Walker's reaction ``came across as very believable and very honest, of a person who thought he was in imminent danger and fired for a reason,'' Krey said.
The verdict stung Cardenas' family members and supporters, who were in tears as they bolted out of Superior Court Judge Rene Navarro's San Jose courtroom.
``I was expecting him to be found guilty,'' said Cardenas' daughter, Regina Cardenas, as she tried to regain her composure outside the courthouse.
Walker, 34, left by a back exit and did not give a public statement. But his attorney, Craig Brown, said the former Watsonville patrolman was ``very relieved,'' and hailed the verdict as a victory for every man and woman who wears a badge.
Cesar Sanchez, a Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement agent who participated in the pursuit and testified reluctantly for the prosecution, stood near the back of the crowded courtroom with tears in his eyes.
Outside, emotions boiled over and a brief but raucous scuffle ensued in front of the courthouse.
As Brown tried to address reporters after the verdict, more than a dozen protesters, some carrying signs bearing photos of a smiling Cardenas, encircled him screaming ``no justice, no peace'' and ``murderer.''
Sheriff's deputies and plainclothes Department of Justice agents then tried to form a human barrier between Brown and the angry group. At one point, the officers attempted to herd the protesters toward the sidewalk. One protester, a woman, was pushed or fell to the ground and could be heard shouting, ``Get your hands off me.''
At that point, a sheriff's sergeant told the officers to stop. There were no arrests or injuries.
Later Tuesday evening, more than 50 people remembered Cardenas at a quiet candlelight vigil outside the parking lot where he was shot.
On Feb. 17, 2004, state agents were asked to assist in doing surveillance on David Gonzales, a parolee with alleged gang ties who had failed to report a change of address. As they staked out a location on 14th Street, Cardenas drove by and caught Walker's attention. Walker followed him, believing he was the target, and a wild vehicle pursuit ensued.
Walker caught up with the 43-year-old father of five at a North Fourth Street retirement home, where Cardenas ditched his van, fled down an alleyway and scaled a chain-link fence. Walker followed and, stopping at the fence, shot the man in the back.
Deputy District Attorney Lane Liroff called Walker a ``cowboy'' cop and urged jurors to hold him accountable for reckless and brash behavior that led to the death of an innocent man.
After the verdict, he said the case was a long shot from the start. ``He was a police officer and it's an unfortunate reality that jurors are going to be more indulgent of a police officer,'' Liroff said.
Krey, the jury foreman, who works for Investor's Business Daily, said, ``The prosecution made a great case and got me to the tip of the mountain, but not over the top.
``There had to be something that made Walker feel like he was in danger,'' Krey said. ``Did it happen or not? I guess when all's said and done only agent Walker knows that, and he has his own conscience to deal with.''
Although the trial featured some San Jose police officers as prosecution witnesses -- San Jose police deemed the pursuit too dangerous to join -- the message from local police Tuesday was one of solidarity with Walker.
``When it comes right down to it the consequences are dire, but in this case any reasonable officer would have made the same decision. You are out there in fear of your life,'' said officer Bobby Lopez, incoming president of the San Jose Police Officers' Association.
The case drew outrage from a cross-section of the community, particularly because Cardenas' killing came on the heels of another controversial police shooting.
Eight months earlier, a San Jose officer shot a Vietnamese woman, Bich Cau Thi Tran, as she stood in her kitchen with an Asian vegetable peeler in her hand. The officer said he feared the hysterical Tran, who had a history of psychiatric problems and had been prescribed medication. An open grand jury hearing was held, but the officer was not charged. The family in November settled a civil suit against the officer for $1.8 million.
Richard Konda, executive director of the Asian Law Alliance and the Coalition for Justice and Accountability, called the outcome of the Walker trial perplexing.
``It seems to me that there are two different kinds of justice systems here: one for police, one for the common person,'' Konda said. ``I can't recall an instance locally where a police officer has been held accountable for his or her criminal actions.''
Walker, who is on paid administrative leave, still faces two civil lawsuits filed by Cardenas' family.
Attorney General Bill Lockyer released a written statement on the verdict, adding his office would have no further comment because of the pending litigation.
``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.
"No justice, No peace!"
Verdict Touches Off Protest
POSTED: 12:24 pm PST December 13, 2005
UPDATED: 6:04 pm PST December 13, 2005
State narcotics agent Mike Walker's manslaughter acquittal after shooting the wrong man in the back touched off a noisy protest outside of the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice Tuesday morning.
A six-man, six-woman jury found Walker not guilty of manslaughter for shooting Rodolfo "Rudy" Cardenas, who he believed was a dangerous fugitive named David Gonzales, in the back on Feb. 17, 2004 following a high-speed chase through the streets of Downtown San Jose.
More than a dozen yelling, sign-waving protestors crowded around defense attorney Craig Brown outside the courthouse and attempted to drown him out with chants of "no justice no peace" as he was being interviewed by reporters following the verdict.
The protest lasted about 30 minutes.
"I'm very relieved obviously. Mike is very relieved," Brown said.
A Cardenas supporter appeared to get knocked to the ground during a scuffle with deputies and plain-clothes officers outside the courthouse.
Brown praised the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office for historically being willing to bring charges against rouge cops but said in this case the charges were not warranted.
"Had it been fairly presented to the grand jury there wouldn't have been an indictment," Brown said.
Outside the courthouse, Regina Cardenas, the daughter of the slain San Jose resident, accused Walker of lying on the witness stand during the trial.
"I think Mike Walker's whole argument was a fabrication," Cardenas said. "He made it up as he went along."
Deputy District Attorney Lane Liroff said that even with the benefit of hindsight he would not have tried the case any differently or added any lesser charges for the jury to possibly compromise on.
"We're disappointed at the verdict but nevertheless we would have done the same thing," Liroff said.
Liroff realized from the beginning that getting a conviction against Walker would be difficult. He admitted that he told the Cardenas family after the grand jury indicted Walker that "we've already won."
"It's an unfortunate reality that jurors... are going to be more indulgent of a police officer," Liroff said.
While Walker was acquitted, the 12-year law enforcement veteran has not decided if he wants to resume his job with the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, according to Brown.
"I don't think he's fully decided what he intends to do at this point," Brown said.
Walker has been on paid administrative leave since the shooting.
Family and friends of Cardenas plan to hold a vigil and march in his honor at the shooting scene Tuesday night.