A federal judge Monday upheld a jury award of $360,000 to the mother of a seizure-plagued Laguna Niguel man who was killed in a conflict with two Orange County sheriff's deputies in 2013.
U.S. District Judge James Selna also rejected a motion for a new trial brought by the county. Jurors in January found that Michael Higgins, who is now an Orange County sheriff's sergeant, used excessive force as he subdued a knife-wielding 21-year-old Connor Bishop Zion on Sept. 24, 2013.
Zion's mother, Kimberly Zion, said she was pleased with the outcome of the case.
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"It was important to me there was wrongdoing (found) in this," Zion told City News Service.
Higgins "had a responsibility not only to his partner, but to my son," she said, referring to Higgins' testimony that he acted to save the life of his partner, who was stabbed by Connor Zion, who was suffering from mental health issues at the time.
"I don't think he acted in an honorable manner," Kimberly Zion said of Higgins, who stomped on her son's head after he was shot several times.
She said she stays active in the dance competition community because dancing was her son's passion.
"Everything I do now is in his memory," she said. "That's how I grieve."
Attorney Daniel Spradlin, who represented the county in the trial, said in January that Higgins "believed his partner was dying and he had to get ahold of the situation."
He argued Monday that the jury award was excessive and that Selna erred in not instructing jurors they could have awarded $1 in damages. But Selna disagreed.
Even though the jury awarded damages for what was essentially the last two minutes of the young man's life since the first volley of nine shots to subdue him was deemed justified, the $360,000 award was not excessive, the judge ruled.
"The jury was entitled to find that Sgt. Higgins' conduct amounted to a gross violation of Connor Zion's dignity and his body," Selna wrote in the tentative ruling that he finalized on Monday. "This is particularly so with regard to the head kicks where Sgt. Higgins kicked once, stepped back, paused and kicked, and did so still again. The magnitude of harm is only compounded when one considers that Connor Zion was absolutely helpless."
Higgins wounded Zion with six bullets, then stood over him and opened fire again "execution style" before "stomping" on the young man's head three times, his mother's attorney told jurors in the trial of her federal excessive force and wrongful death lawsuit.
Plaintiff's attorney Cindy Panuco said Connor Zion, who was living with a roommate in Laguna Niguel at the time of his death, was a ballroom dancer struggling with nocturnal epilepsy.
The Burbank native moved with his mother to the state of Washington when he was 2 years old. His mother discovered his "gift for dancing" when he was 8, and the boy competed in dance contests throughout the West Coast, Panuco said.
He was 18 when he had his first seizure, she said. Kimberly Zion flew in to Orange County to check on her son the night of the shooting, after his roommate said he was having seizures, Panuco said. When she saw her son, he had a "blank stare" and was "looking right through her," seemingly not recognizing her, Panuco said.
Deputies were called when a struggle erupted with Connor Zion over a kitchen knife, the attorney said. According to Panuco, Higgins was the second deputy to arrive. She said he responded to the scene with a squad car that had a malfunctioning computer, so he could not get regular updates on the suspect's condition.
He also had difficulty hearing dispatchers from his car radio because of the high volume from his siren, the lawyer said. Much of the evidence in the case came from dashcam videos from the responding deputies. As Zion wounded his mother and roommate in the struggle over the knife, neighbors called 911. Juan Lopez, then a deputy but now a sergeant, was first on scene.
The plaintiff's attorneys argued that he made a tactical error in getting so close to the scene of the incident and should have staged further away while waiting for backup. Zion emerged suddenly from his apartment complex, prompting Lopez to retreat from the knife-wielding suspect, Panuco said.
Higgins, who was still in his squad car, nearly backed up into his partner, the attorney said. As Lopez fell to the ground, Zion stabbed him in an arm, Panuco said. Higgins eventually got out of his car as the suspect ran away, prompting the deputy to open fire, she said. She said an expert has concluded that if the deputy had not fired a second round of shots, and Zion had received immediate medical attention for the six initial gunshot wounds, he would have survived.
Higgins failed to follow county policy and other law enforcement standards to subdue the suspect with handcuffs or pepper spray or other types of non-lethal force once he was down on the ground, wounded, Panuco said.
Instead, he stood over Zion and emptied his gun of nine bullets "execution style," then "takes a running start and stomps on his head" three different times, Panuco said.
Experts from both sides had differing opinions on what ultimately led to the suspect's death. Higgins believed his partner, Lopez, suffered potential mortal wounds when the suspect stabbed him three times "so hard it severed nerves in Juan Lopez's arm," Spradlin said, telling jurors that Lopez "thought he was going to die" and was "ambushed" by Zion.
Zion was heard declaring, "I'll kill you (expletive)" as he emerged from the apartment complex, Spradlin said.
An expert for the defense concluded that the first round of bullets killed the suspect, telling jurors that Higgins got off another round because it was possible Zion was playing possum.
Higgins gave the suspect two "verbal warnings to stay down, don't get up" before slamming his heel into Zion's head, Spradlin said, maintaining that "deadly force was used appropriately" to protect Lopez, the witnesses and the suspect's mother and roommate.