Alameda Approves $11 Million Settlement in ‘Restraint-Asphyxia’ Death of Man by 3 Police Officers

By The Vanguard Staff

ALAMEDA, CA – The Alameda City Council this past week approved a $11 million settlement for the now seven-year-old son of Mario Gonzalez after the family filed a lawsuit against the City of Alameda and three involved police officers for Gonzalez’s restraint-asphyxia death April 19, 2021, according to the civil rights law firm Haddad & Sherwin.

The law firm emphasized Gonzalez’s cause of death was “Officers applying pressure to Gonzalez’s torso and legs, mixed with the stress of the altercation,” violating “Gonzalez’s constitutional rights, specifically focusing on instances of unlawful arrest and excessive force.”

Trial was set to begin in November, but, said the civil rights lawyers in a statement, “on the eve of trial…the city and its officers filed an appeal of the court’s denial of qualified immunity, which would have postponed the trial for over a year. The parties then negotiated this $11 million settlement.”

The involved Alameda police officers in the original suit are Eric McKinley, James Fisher, and Cameron Leahy for their part in the homicide, which is still under review by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, said the law firm.

Haddad & Sherwin recounted a September decision by U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna M. Ryu that denied the city’s motions for summary judgment, allowing the case to go to trial.

Haddad & Sherwin said the day before the jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder for the restraint-asphyxia death of George Floyd, Officer McKinley “encountered Mario Gonzalez in a small pocket-park in Alameda, California.  Two neighbors had called police to investigate a Hispanic man talking to himself and not making any sense, standing near one caller’s front yard fence.  

“A caller stated that the man was not doing anything wrong, but that the man’s presence in the public park was scaring the caller’s wife.  Officer McKinley asked Mario Gonzalez how he was doing, and Mr. Gonzalez responded that he was fine, although he appeared confused and disoriented.”  

Haddad & Sherwin added that, after determining Gonzalez had not stolen empty bottles of liquor which were on the grounds, officers decided no law had been broken. But, McKinley and Fisher still “grabbed Mr. Gonzalez to place him in handcuffs.  Officers’ body-camera video shows officers placing Mr. Gonzalez in multiple pain compliance holds before they forced him face-down on the ground.”

Officers McKinley and Fisher then, added the civil rights firms, “held him down with their force and body weight.  The officers were soon joined by Officer Leahy, who added his weight as…Gonzalez struggled to breathe over the next five minutes while these officers restrained him in a prone position with their force and body weight, including for 3 minutes and 45 seconds after he was handcuffed.”

Haddad & Sherwin maintain Gonzalez “never attacked or threatened any officer, and never actively resisted any officer.  He did move around in attempts to breathe under Defendants’ illegal and asphyxiating restraint.  Eventually when officers rolled Mr. Gonzalez over, he was limp and unresponsive.  He died as a result of the officers’ tactics and force.”

The Alameda County Sheriff-Coroner found Gonzalez’s death was a homicide, and “the officers were applying pressure to torso and legs with at least some of the weight of their bodies” and the “stress of the altercation and restraint” contributed to his death, along with his obesity, alcoholism, and recent use of methamphetamine.

Lawyers for the family said the “amount of methamphetamine found in Mr. Gonzalez’s blood was relatively low, well within what the United States government has determined to be a “normal recreational level.”  

A second, independent autopsy, performed by forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet I. Omalu, “confirmed that Mr. Gonzalez died from restraint asphyxia.  Dr. Omalu found acute, severe swelling and congestion in Mr. Gonzalez’s lungs, deep bruising from blunt force trauma on his back, and global swelling of his brain from the lack of oxygen and asphyxiation that caused his death.”

Andrea Cortez, the mother of Mario Gonzalez’s seven-year-old son, said in a statement by her lawyers: “Mario was a peaceful, calm person.  He was a very mellow guy.  He adored our son and was a good father.  The police should have known to use better tactics with Mario.  He wasn’t hurting anyone and he was clearly confused.  If they had rolled him on his side when the first officer said to, my son’s father might still be here.”

Michael Haddad, one of Mario’s son’s attorneys, said, “This settlement sends a message to law enforcement around the country to avoid unnecessary tactics known to cause asphyxia.  Any kindergartener knows that people can’t breathe if you kneel on their back.  There are consequences when police officers engage in such gross misconduct contrary even to their own training.”

Julia Sherwin, another family attorney, added, “This settlement confirms what we have said all along.  Meth didn’t kill Mario, the officers did.  I hope when little Mario grows up, he is proud of himself for holding the officers accountable for his father’s death.”

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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