By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
STOCKTON, Ca – “Not all superheroes wear capes,” said Joseph Green about his legal team late Wednesday after a five woman, seven man jury here awarded him $710,000 for his claims against the city of Stockton and police officers Robert Johnson and Robert Wong, who participated in his beat down and false arrest at a Stockton convenience store.
The nearly three-week long San Joaquin Superior Court trial ended with Johnson, Wong and the city on the short end of the stick when the jury made it clear it believed the word of Green, a 16-year-old in February 2011, over the word of Johnson and Wong.
Green charged Johnson beat him – while Wong stood by and watched – so badly that Green’s front teeth were knocked out. After the attack, the officers arrested Green and then lied about it to superiors, and the jury, said Green’s lawyer.
“Justice,” as it was termed my Green’s legal team, was delayed until now because of the Stockton bankruptcy action. And the award will go a long way to finally replacing the two front teeth Green lost in his beating.
The $710,000 jury award, according Green’s attorney Tony Piccuta, included $275,000 for past pain and suffering, $155,000 for future pain and suffering and $280,000 for the Bane Act penalty for interference with Green’s civil rights under the U.S. and California constitutions.
Johnson, who initiated the violence against Green including punching him while Green was handcuffed on the floor – Johnson called them “distraction blows” – was found responsible on all claims, including the charges of fraud, malice or oppression.
Wong was found responsible on two claims – that he failed to intervene in Johnson’s use of excessive force and that he was an integral participant to Johnson’s unlawful arrest. Charges were never pursued against Green by District Attorney.
Damages were apportioned 90 percent to Johnson and 10 percent to Wong.
Piccuta agreed to waive punitive damages in order to get an agreement from the city to make payment within 60 days, and waive all post-verdict motions or appeals.
“I wanted Joseph to put this terrible episode behind him, and get closure as soon as possible,” explained Piccuta, 42, about the decision to forego punitive damages against Johnson.
Including fees from the city’s defense lawyers, and Piccuta’s firm, the total tab – that Stockton taxpayers will pay – will probably be $1.5 million or more.
Piccuta, who was assisted by attorney Matthew R. Laydon, said Green and his mother were “extremely happy,” after the nearly nine-year ordeal.
“All the jurors stayed to talk to us. Mr. Green thanked them personally and shook all their hands. The jury was as happy as he was. It appeared they were glad they could help on this case and see that justice was done.
“I think it was great for everyone—except for Johnson. After the verdict he just stood all alone at the corner of the hallway upstairs staring out the window. I didn’t even see him talking to his attorneys. He was finally caught and the whole community will know what he did,” said Piccuta, who appeared to have a personal connection to his client throughout the trial.
He was even warned by the judge on several occasions for making “inappropriate” comments. He broke down during his opening arguments while he was describing what happened to Green in his encounter with Johnson.
“Joseph Green told me that not all superheroes wear capes. It was one of my proudest moments as an attorney,” said Piccuta.
In closing arguments, while lawyers for the officers insisted “there is no grand scheme, no plot,” Piccuta pointed to the evidence, including video, and “common sense,” that conflicted with the officers’ testimony and other inconsistencies. He noted the officers could not justify the violence done to the Black teen who was just buying candy for his little sister. He called them “liars.”
“These guys did this together…more likely or not, with malice oppression or fraud. I don’t know what the right damages are – I would give him millions of dollars, but I know Joe Green,” said Piccuta in closing.
Then, in comments partially stricken by the judge but nonetheless heard by the jury, Piccuta said “This resonates with me; I have a son, and I can’t imagine it happening to him. Fight for (Green). Send a message. Deliver a meaningful verdict and know you made a difference. If you’re cheap, they (officers) will go out and celebrate.
“Joe Green will tell this story the rest of his life…you can write the last chapter to this story,” Piccuta closed.
Tuesday, after only a few hours of deliberation, the jury gutted the officers’ defense when it returned a “Special Verdict Form,” indicating it didn’t believe the officers’ version of events, which were captured on two video feeds.
The jury unanimously agreed 12-0 that Green did not “intentionally interfere with the business of the California Stop,” 10-2 that Green did not do so by “obstructing or intimidating those attempting to carry on business at the California Stop or its customers” and 11-1 that that he did not “refuse to leave the California Stop after being requested to leave by the owner, owner’s agent or by a peace officer acting at the request of the owner or owner’s agent.”
Officer Johnson testified he had to arrest Green because he was obstructing business at the California Stop gas station and convenience store as he was trying to buy “Gummy Bear” candy for his four-year old sister while their mother pumped $60 worth of gas outside.
Johnson said Green wouldn’t leave the store after the clerk told him to believe. The clerk, in an interview, said he did not tell Green to leave, while Johnson insisted he did.
Johnson – in plain clothes and behind Green in line – said he grabbed Green as he was leaving, pulled him into the store, and punched him at least two times on the ground. Green lost both his front teeth and had to be hospitalized.
The verdict by the jury confirmed jurors did not believe officers Johnson and Wong.
“The jury came to the right conclusion,” said Piccuta of the Piccuta Law Group, LLP.
The trial lasted nearly two weeks when choosing a jury delayed the trial. A high number of potential jurors had to be excused after they said they either heard about, or experienced bad treatment by Stockton police.
Before it was over, one potential juror was dismissed after sobbing uncontrollably, another juror said she was “happy I don’t live in this town” (Stockton) and another juror was excused after he thought the case should have settled. And blamed the plaintiff, Green. The potential juror’s wife was in law enforcement.
In the end, the 12-person jury has one Black juror, three Latinos of the empaneled five women, seven men.
The Stockton Police Dept released a public statement, noting an “unfortunate incident occurred in 2011, and the Stockton Police Department takes such matters seriously. The department held Officer Robert Johnson accountable with a sustained finding of excessive force, which was later overturned by an arbitrator. The Stockton Police Department cannot discuss further litigation matters.”
Johnson reportedly is still with the PD as a strategic operations officer. Wong is a field operations sergeant.