3 Alameda Officers Face Charges in Death of Mario Gonzalez

3 Alameda Officers Face Charges in Death of Mario Gonzalez

Three years after police officers in Northern California pinned a man face down for about five minutes as he begged for relief, prosecutors announced that the officers would face charges of involuntary manslaughter in the man’s death.

The charges against Eric McKinley, James Fisher and Cameron Leahy, all with the Alameda Police Department at the time, in the death of Mario Gonzalez, 26, were announced on Thursday, after a review by the Alameda County district attorney’s Public Accountability Unit.

The county’s previous district attorney closed the investigation into the officers in 2022, saying that the evidence did not justify criminal charges. But Pamela Price, who was elected district attorney later that year, reopened the case a year ago.

The new charges were announced just days after the county’s Registrar of Voters announced that a recall campaign against Ms. Price had submitted enough signatures to proceed.

The incident that ended in Mr. Gonzalez’s death began when the officers responded to a call that a man was loitering and behaving strangely in a public park on April 19, 2021.

Mr. Gonzalez was wandering at the edge of the park, near a row of houses. Body camera footage captured Officer McKinley approaching Mr. Gonzalez in a friendly manner, asking him if he was OK. Mr. Gonzalez spoke incoherently, standing near two shopping baskets of liquor bottles.

When a second officer arrived, the encounter escalated, as the men asked Mr. Gonzalez repeatedly for his name and identification. They grabbed his arms, and Mr. Gonzalez began to cry out. The officers brought him to the ground and held him there face down, a restraint technique that is known to pose a risk to a person’s ability to breathe.

An analysis of the footage by The New York Times in 2021 found that the death occurred after one officer appeared to keep his knee on the upper right side of Mr. Gonzalez’s back for 2 minutes 50 seconds. The officers appeared to be concerned about Mr. Gonzalez’s ability to breathe during the five minutes that they restrained him.

Eventually, the footage showed, they realized he was unresponsive and rolled him onto his side and then his back, before beginning chest compressions and calling for medical assistance. He was declared dead at a hospital soon afterward.

The city reached two settlements with Mr. Gonzalez’s family in December. One would pay $11 million to Mr. Gonzalez’s young son, and the other would pay $350,000 to his mother.

Mr. Gonzalez’s mother, Edith Arenales, told reporters at a vigil on Friday marking the anniversary of her son’s death that she had long hoped charges would be filed against the officers. “Thank God they opened the case again,” she said. “Tomorrow’s my birthday, but this is my present today.”

Two of the officers are on paid administrative leave from the Alameda Police Department, while Mr. Fisher is now a sheriff’s deputy in another county in Northern California. In a statement, Alameda’s police chief, Nishant Joshi, said he stood by the previous investigations that concluded the men “did not engage in any misconduct.”

The case drew comparisons to George Floyd, who died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, sparking months of protests over racial justice across the country. That officer, Derek Chauvin, was found guilty of two counts of murder and sentenced to over 20 years in prison.

In Mr. Gonzalez’s case, the office of the district attorney at the time, Nancy O’Malley, published a 38-page report detailing the officers’ response and concluding that “the elements of the relevant crimes cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

An initial autopsy by the county coroner’s office attributed Mr. Gonzalez’s death to “toxic effects of methamphetamine” with other significant conditions, including morbid obesity, alcoholism and “physiological stress of altercation and restraint,” the district attorney’s office said in a statement on Thursday. A later autopsy commissioned by his family concluded the death was “a result of restraint asphyxiation.”

Ms. Price, the current district attorney, was elected after campaigning on a liberal platform that included reviewing old cases and lightening sentences. Soon after taking office, she reopened Mr. Gonzalez’s case, along with seven other cases of civilian deaths involving law enforcement.

“Every case that we’re looking at now was determined under a double standard,” Ms. Price told The New York Times last year. “Police officers received a different standard of justice than everyday people.”

Critics of Ms. Price’s approach started an effort to recall her from office less than a year into her term. A recall election will take place this summer.

An attorney for Mr. Leahy, Alison Berry Wilkinson, said in a statement that the officers acted reasonably and that a jury would exonerate the men. “There is no new evidence,” said Ms. Wilkinson, who represented all three officers until the charges were filed. “This is a blatantly political prosecution.”

The officers will be arraigned on May 30. All three are expected to plead guilty, Ms. Wilkinson said.

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