Earlier this month, the Yolo County Coroner’s Office released their autopsy report which concluded that the cause of 30-year-old Michael Barrera’s death, following being Tased by Woodland Police officers, “was sudden death with methamphetamine intoxication during restraint by law enforcement.” However, the “manner of death was classified as Undetermined.”
Following the release of that report, long-time Sacramento civil rights Attorney Stewart Katz, who specializes in police use-of-force cases, said he was surprised by the vagueness of the report and told the Vanguard there is nothing in this report that will convince him not to proceed with a federal civil rights lawsuit.
Mr. Katz has followed through on that assessment, filing a Government Claim for Damages with the City of Woodland and the Yolo County Sheriff’s department. A government claim is the necessary precursor to a lawsuit once the entity, as they generally do, denies liability.
In the claim against Yolo County, Mr. Katz writes, “Michael Anthony Barrera was killed (February 8, 2017) by law enforcement, including, it is believed, officers from the Yolo County’s Sheriff’s Office. Decedent was experiencing a mental health emergency at the time and not presenting a credible threat to the officers or anyone else. The officers used unreasonable force, including a taser, causing his death.”
It continues, “The County is vicariously liable for the conduct of its employee deputies and is responsible for the inadequate training and supervision, which was also a cause of decedent’s death. Their involvement is evidenced by Yolo County Sheriff’s Office Report #17-0355 and Woodland Police Department Report #17-0708.”
Shortly after news reports were released, Sheriff Ed Prieto claimed that his officers were not present at the time of the Tasering. The family disputes this account. “None of my officers were involved,” Sheriff Prieto said.
“I was the first person on scene because I am the coroner and (Mr. Barrera’s body) had already been removed from the scene,” he added.
Mr. Katz filed a similar claim against the city of Woodland.
On February 8, Michael Barrera, 30, died following a report of a disturbance in Woodland. Reports had Mr. Barrera carrying a large knife, a golf club and a pair of scissors when he was hit with a Taser twice, and later stopped breathing and died.
The sheriff’s department is currently investigating the incident, with members of the family telling the Vanguard in mid-February, “We have been told lie after lie, they have lied to our community, and they are covering something up. At this point we have been told numerous different versions of the story and lies from WPD and Yolo County Sheriff’s Dept.”
Following the release of the autopsy report, Mr. Katz told the Vanguard that he found the lack of finding on the manner of death to be meaningful.
“Clearly we’re not getting many answers from this report,” he said. “There is nothing in this report that’s inconsistent with the family’s version of events. To me at least, it raises rather than lessens any suspicions about the fact that, but for the law enforcement actions, he wouldn’t be dead.”
The coroner concludes that Forensic Pathologist Brian M. Nagao, MD, “determined the cause of death to be sudden death with methamphetamine intoxication during restraint by law enforcement.”
According to Dr. Nagao, “There is a possibility that the decedent could have died with the quantitated level of methamphetamine in his blood without getting into an altercation with law enforcement.”
However, Dr. Nagao stated that he “cannot determine if the physical contact pathologically caused or contributed to the death, but we cannot exclude the restraint which was the actions of another. No obvious fatal injuries were observed during the postmortem examination.”
Mr. Katz told the Vanguard that he “expected a little more specificity as to what exactly the restraints and the Tasering consisted of.”
The autopsy noted, “Two needle-sized punctures with darkened skin edges were observed on the left flank and left hip. These punctures appeared consistent with taser deployment.”
It noted contusions on the wrists “consistent with the decedent having been handcuffed prior.”
Mr. Katz said, “Other than stating he had been handcuffed, it did not say what the restraints consisted of.”
He also noted that it was not clear what the confrontation consisted of. The autopsy noted, “The decedent was reported to have been swinging a golf club at some point and had a physical altercation with Woodland Police Department.”
Mr. Katz said, “I don’t know what the cause of death was, but it’s also consistent with a cover up in terms of the coroner’s report.”
He noted that they did not specify how long he was in restraints or what the restraints were, but he said that “clearly they were able to restrain him.”
The report notes that, during the altercation, Mr. Barrera was Tased. He became unresponsive and “[t]he decedent was transported to the hospital with CPR in progress. CPR had occurred out in the field for approximately 30 minutes prior to the decedent’s arrival to the emergency department.”
The report found his methamphetamine level as being that of 1800 ng/mL. Generally speaking, anything over 1000 ng/mL is considered a lethal dose, and that can vary depending on drug history. Several sources told the Vanguard they would be surprised if that level of meth would be fatal to an apparent habitual user.
Stewart Katz said, “Habitual users have greater tolerance… Habitual users have much higher levels.
“There is nothing in this report that would not, frankly, cause me to say gee-whiz, do I think there’s a legitimate lawsuit here and a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. He said at the time that he was planning to file a government claim and a federal civil rights lawsuit.
—David M. Greenwald reporting