Critical Witnesses Take the Stand in Gutiérrez Case

img_3299.jpgIf attorneys for the family of Luis Gutiérrez, shot and killed in Woodland on April 30, 2009, by three Yolo County Sheriff’s Deputies, are to make their case, three independent witnesses for the plaintiffs, who witnessed various stages of the pursuit and eventual shooting, will be critical.

On Thursday, two of those critical witnesses, along with the first of the three deputies, would testify.

Javier Cabrera, who lives in Woodland and works as a mechanic in Dixon, testified through a Spanish interpreter that he had never met the Gutiérrez  family or Luis Gutiérrez  himself.

He was at home when he got a call for work.  He was picked up and driven down Gum Ave in order to repair a vehicle.

He described seeing a pedestrian on the sidewalk.  Mr. Cabrera described the man who turned out to be Luis Gutiérrez  as short but somewhat stocky, wearing a white sweatshirt and blue pants.

Mr. Cabrera, the passenger in his vehicle, saw Luis Gutiérrez  on the left side of the road at the bottom of the overpass as his own vehicle was headed west.

At the top of the bridge, he described a dark-colored Ford Taurus, parked at an angle, facing southwest about 40 feet from Mr. Gutiérrez .

Mr. Cabrera testified that he turned back and saw the person with a surprised appearance on his face, stopped and not walking.  He testified that his hands were out and they were opened up.

He saw nothing in his hand.

Mr. Cabrera testified that he thought the three Sheriff’s Deputies were actually gangsters who were going to beat up Mr. Gutiérrez .

Under cross-examination, attorneys for the defense attempted to clarify the position of the Ford Taurus.  Mr. Cabrera described, when looking a picture of the vehicle, that the vehicle was at an angle outside of the white fog line.

The attorney for the defense noted that Mr. Cabrera had told Woodland Police following the incident that the Taurus had not impeded traffic.

Mr. Cabrera maintained that, while the Taurus was not blocking traffic, it was outside of the fog line.  He also noted under re-direct that he had never seen a car stopped like this before.

Vienna Navarro had previously testified before the Independent Civil Rights Commission in Woodland in the spring of 2010.

She took the stand on Thursday and testified that in April of 2009, she had lived in the Crossroad Village Apartments with her mother and ex-fiancé.  Currently a student at Sacramento State University, at the time she went to Woodland Community college.

She was on her way home, traveling westbound on Gum Avenue, when she saw three people running across the street.  Ms. Navarro testified that initially she thought it was horseplay.

She would describe Luis Gutiérrez as wearing a white shirt and shorts.  The two officers she described as white and Hispanic, one as large and muscular and the other she had originally described as white, tall and balding.

Ms. Navarro then described them as running from the westbound to eastbound lanes as they engaged in an altercation in which she says she saw Luis Gutiérrez  punch one of the officers.

Luis Gutiérrez  then ran toward her van and got within three to four feet.  She described his face as confused and scared.  She said that they made eye contact.

She testified that her window was down but that she heard no yelling.

She continued to drive very slowly and Mr. Gutiérrez  continued to go back of the van.  Now looking over her shoulder and in her mirrors, she said that he never put his hands in his pocket, he was jogging normally with his arms swinging at his side.

In her mirror she saw Mr. Gutiérrez  turn, pivot, and begin jogging backward looking at the Sheriff’s Deputy.  He then turned back around and was shot.  She said she saw him fall to the ground.

It is here that Vienna Navarro said that she went home.  She said that she was upset and in shock.  However, despite seeing the shooting, she did not immediately call police.

Instead, she went to school.  It was only at school that she saw on the internet that Mr. Gutiérrez  had died that she decided to call the police.

She testified that, while she saw a badge at the waist of one of the deputies, she did not realize that these were officers.

Ms. Navarro described her interview with police, which she said felt like hours.  She said she felt like she was being interrogated, describing the questioning as tricky and aggressive.

At one point she said that the officer had concealed a knife in his jacket as if to demonstrate that Mr. Gutiérrez could have had a knife and she just missed it.  However, she noted that Mr. Gutiérrez was not wearing a jacket and that she saw his hands the entire time and never saw a knife.

She also never saw him make a tossing motion.

Ms. Navarro testified that she was 10 to 15 feet away from officers when the shooting occurred.

The cross-examination focused on several key areas, including what would appear to be a somewhat deficient memory and recollection of events.

One of the big problems is that Ms. Navarro gave a faulty description of one of the officers as white, tall and balding.  After rather lengthy cross-examination that appeared to be going in circles, Ms. Navarro testified that the officers do not look in court as she remembered and described them.

She also acknowledged that originally she believed it was a different officer that she had seen – one that she had known and who had arrested her ex-fiancé.

What became clear is that she simply had not seen the officers very well and did not describe their appearance accurately initially.

Under re-direct, she acknowledged that her main focus had been on Mr. Gutiérrez and not the officers’ appearance.

However this exchange was long and drawn out and Judge Karlton had to step in at several point to clarify the witness’ testimony.

The attorney for the defense, after Ms. Navarro testified that her ex-fiancé had been arrested several times, asked about whether they had a toxic relationship.  Ms. Navarro noted that there was a reason he was her ex-fiancé.

As the attorney continued down this path, Judge Karlton loudly interjected, “Ma’am of what relevance is this?”

The surprised attorney said that it goes to the credibility of the witness.

“Credibility of the witness?” Judge Karlton asked incredulously before catching himself.  Eventually the plaintiffs objected to the line of questioning on relevance and we moved forward.

The attorneys for the defense also spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get the witness to reconstruct a diagram she had constructed during deposition that was taken in January.  However, Ms. Navarro did not really remember the details of what she had constructed nine months previously.

Clearly Ms. Navarro, as many eyewitnesses do, had trouble identifying the officers and trouble recalling her previous reconstruction of the scene.  The question for the jury is whether that will render her testimony about the events and sequence of events as questionable.  She held up on most of the core points in her description and the defense only was able to attack her testimony with regard to the officers’ appearance, something she acknowledged she got wrong.

The defense perhaps missed an opportunity to explore her initial reaction to the shooting, the fact that she did not immediately call the police, and that while she was upset, she eventually calmed down and went on with her day.  It was only later after learning of his death that she took action.

Lt. Dale Johnson, who was promoted to that position in 2011, took the stand on Thursday, as well.  He will resume his testimony this morning.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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