Friday, June 22, 2012
Court of Appeal Overturns Verdict in Fatal Shooting
Panel Says Judge Allowed Plaintiff’s Expert to Usurp Jury Function
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal yesterday overturned a verdict awarding more than $1.5 million to the family of a man who was shot and killed outside an East San Diego County home, and to another victim who was the shooter’s estranged wife.
Div. One said the case against Gary Sanner must be retried because a San Diego Superior Court judge allowed the plaintiff’s expert to give conclusory testimony about the unreasonableness of the defendant’s actions, which he claimed he took in self-defense after his wife, her boyfriend, her son, and her boyfriend’s son came to his house at 2 a.m.
Sanner acknowledged firing three blasts from his shotgun on Aug. 9, 2008. One of those blasts from inside Sanner’s home, at the people just outside his window, killed 18-year-old J.E. Burton, and another injured Jennifer Sanchez.
Sanchez was in the process of divorcing Sanner at the time. She said she went to the house with her boyfriend, Joseph Burton; Burton’s son, whose full name was Joseph Eric Burton; and Sanchez’s 16-year-old son, Shayne Thompson.
She went to the house at that unusual hour, she testified, because she knew Sanner was likely to be awake and because she was afraid she would not get her belongings from the house if she waited until later.
Prosecutors declined to file charges, but Sanchez and the Burton family filed suit, which went to trial before Judge Rhonda Trapp and a San Diego Superior Court jury in El Cajon two years ago.
Scott Reitz, a retired veteran of 29 years with the Los Angeles Police Department and expert marksman who for 15 years served as the LAPD’s main firearms instructor, testified as an expert for the plaintiffs. Over defense objection, he told jurors that Sanner could have avoided the deadly confrontation by answering the phone when Sanchez called about an hour earlier and telling her not to come over, or by firing a warning shot, or by telling her he was on the phone with 911 and she had better leave.
Reitz also noted that Sanner was a psychiatric technician and was trained in how to manage hostile situations without escalation.
“If something can be applied to an individual who is schizophrenic or suffering from dementia, most certainly those same principles would apply in a normal setting with people that are absent of these maladies,” Reitz said.
Sanner insisted that he fired in self-defense; that while he called 911, he had no idea if help would arrive in time; and that he had no idea who the early morning visitors were, because he did not recognize their voices and could only see silhouettes.
Jurors found Sanner 75 percent responsible for the Burton family’s damages of $1.8 million, for a net of $1.3 million, and awarded more than $200,000 to Sanchez, who suffered permanent nerve damage.
But the award has to be reversed because it was prejudicial error to allow Reitz to testify as he did, Presiding Justice Judith McConnell wrote.
“Sanner did not raise any circumstance the jury may not understand in conjunction with his necessity defense. Reitz’s testimony inappropriately drew legal conclusions concerning the objective reasonableness of Sanner’s conduct.”
It was improper, she said, for Reitz to testify as to matters that the jury could just as readily determine for themselves, and for the judge to allow him to testify as to matters beyond his competence, such as how a trained psychiatric worker should have handled the situation.
Indeed, the jurist said in a footnote, it was “absurd” to equate Sanner’s work situation, in which he might have had to confront a single patient, with other employees around and with access to restraining materials and medications that could calm the patient down, with the situation he faced while alone in his home with several unknown persons outside his door.
The case is Burton v. Sanner, 12 S.O.S. 3026.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company