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Council rejects proposed settlement in Sanders shooting incident

Friday, July 30, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Council voted last night to reject a $750,000 settlement in a federal civil rights lawsuit with the family of shooting victim Nathaniel Sanders. The vote came only after a substitute motion made by Council Member Chris Riley to settle with the family for a smaller amount than that recommended by city staff failed on a vote of 2-5.


Sanders died on May 11, 2009 in a shooting incident involving an Austin police officer.


Although the city is no longer a defendant in the suit, the city is paying to defend former Officer Leonardo Quintana, who shot Sanders. As the officer’s employer the city would be liable for any damages if a jury determined that Quintana violated Sanders’ civil rights during the incident.


The original negotiated settlement that Council was set to vote on would have cost the city $750,000. Over the past weeks, Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez had come out against the settlement. Council members Bill Spelman and Sheryl Cole had explained their reasons for supporting it. And Laura Morrison, without saying before Thursday exactly how she would vote, articulated a number of reasons for ending the litigation.


That left Randi Shade and Riley, who proposed his substitute motion, reducing the payment to $500,000, as a way to find a “resolution that represents a respectful middle ground between the two sides (in the case), where we can acknowledge our differences and just agree to move on without reaching a determination” on the justifiability of Officer Leonardo Quintana’s shooting of Sanders on May 11, 2009.


Quintana was cleared by a grand jury of any criminal wrongdoing in the shooting.


When the proposed $750,000 settlement was made public on July 8, Adam Loewy, the attorney for the Sanders family, said he was pleased that officials were taking responsibility for “this unjustified shooting.” That claim, according to several Council members, made the settlement process far more difficult. It also caused the Austin Police Association to announce its opposition to the settlement and actively lobby against it.


“The process has not run its course in a way that has determined that the shooting was unjustified,” Riley said. “Due in part to the conduct of the plaintiff’s counsel, the payment amount on the table is perceived as an admission that the shooting was unjustified. So I can understand why police and many others in the community feel like they’re getting shorted in this.”


He said that the reduced settlement would mean that no determination about the city’s or the officer’s culpability could be made.


Shade voted in favor of Riley’s substitute motion. “Based on the information I have,” she said, “I truly believe that arriving at a settlement agreement that acknowledges that mistakes have been made on all sides but that also doesn’t come with the frame of ‘unjustified shooting’ is in the best interest of the city … I can’t support a settlement that attaches to it the city’s admission of an unjustified shooting.”


Spelman was quick to point out that though the attorney for the plaintiff and members of the Austin Police Association had engaged in a war of words over whether or not a settlement would imply that Quintana was justified in his shooting of Sanders, “the text of the settlement very clearly states that the city is not admitting anything, that Officer Quintana is not admitting anything.”


Morrison agreed, saying that “one ill-advised misstatement” does not make something true. “It is not true that we don’t support our police,” she said, “and that this settlement would show that we do not support our police.” She said that it is time for the community to start healing and that a “federal court case is not a place to have dialogue.”


“For me it’s clear that the most important question is what is the best way for our community to get on a path to closure. … The simple answer for me is that it is right to accept the settlement as recommended by staff.”


But Leffingwell and Martinez disagreed, each convinced that the best way for the city to move forward would be for the process to continue through a trial.


“I think the best shot we have at this now,” said Leffingwell, “is to let this process go forward, let the facts (come out), let a jury of peers make the decision.”


“I don’t believe the community can come together if we agree to a settlement,” Martinez said. “I do personally feel though that a community can much easier understand and come to an agreement when you let it go through the justice system we have in place.”


After Council voted down Riley’s substitute motion, with Riley and Shade voting for, they voted to reject the $750,000 settlement recommended by staff 3-4, with Spelman, Cole, and Morrison voting for.


The decision drew the audible and visible ire of many in attendance, but was greeted warmly by Wayne Vincent, the president of the Austin Police Association.


“We’re pleased because we’re of the opinion that the process needs to play out. I think the community, in the long run, wins,” he said. 

But NAACP President Nelson Linder, among others, was angry. He told KVUE News in a broadcast interview:  “Leffingwell’s a coward; he’s a snake and we’re going to defeat him, and I want to tell the folks if you are a registered voter, remember Randi Shade, and bicycle man Chris Riley.  Bicycles are more important than black people.”

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