A jury Tuesday awarded $360,000 to the mother of a Laguna Niguel man who was killed in an encounter with Orange County Sheriff's deputies in 2013.
Jurors found last week 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. Jurors began deliberating on damages about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday and returned with a verdict about 2 p.m.
The jurors found that Higgins was personally liable for the damages, though they found negligence on behalf of the county and Higgins last week. The county will be responsible for paying for the damages.
"It shows respect for Connor Zion, and it shows Michael Higgins' behavior on behalf of the Orange County Sheriff's Department was irresponsible," said attorney Dan Stormer, who represented Kimberly Zion, the mother of Connor Zion.
"Hopefully this sends a message that the citizens of Orange County will not accept'' police brutality, Stormer said.
Connor Zion's family was "relieved," Stormer said, adding, "They feel this is justice for Connor."
County attorney Dan Spradlin said he was "disappointed" with the verdict.
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"I think the evidence is pretty much undisputed that this all went down in 23 seconds," Spradlin said. "And we spent two weeks going over it (in trial)."
Higgins "believed his partner was dying and he had to get ahold of the situation," Spradlin said.
In the 2013 conflict, 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, Zion's attorney told jurors in her opening statement in the 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.
"He used dance to overcome his mental illness," Panuco said.
The Burbank native moved with his mother to the state of Washington when he was 2 years old, Panuco said. His mother discovered his "gift for dancing" when he was 8, and the boy competed in dance contests throughout the West Coast, she said. He was 18 when he had his first seizure, Panuco said.
"He had serious psychological problems, which could have been (post-traumatic stress disorder), bipolar (disease) or schizophrenia," she said.
Zion moved back to California after he turned 18, but his mother, who lived in the Seattle area, would visit him regularly to ensure he was getting the mental health treatment he needed, the attorney 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.
"Deputy Higgins went in blind, not knowing what the situation was," Panuco said.
Much of the evidence in the case comes from dashcam videos from the responding deputies. Jurors got a view of some of those videos in the opening statements from the attorneys.
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.
Stormer 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, Panuco said, adding that a neighbor walking two dogs "cowered" in the line of fire.
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 gunshots 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 have differing opinions on what ultimately led to the suspect's death.
Spradlin said in his opening statement "that while Connor Zion's death is truly a tragedy, the evidence will show it was not the fault of Deputy Higgins or the county."
Higgins' response was "dictated by the actions of Connor Zion himself," Spradlin said.
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.
Lopez "thought he was going to die" and was "ambushed" by Zion, Spradlin said.
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, he said, 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.