Jury finds Calif. deputy not guilty in fatal shooting

Jurors determined Deputy Justin Wall's actions were justified following the 2017 fatal shooting of a woman who led deputies on a low-speed pursuit


By Erin Tracy and Kevin Valine
The Modesto Bee
        
SAN JOAQUIN COUNTY, Calif. — A San Joaquin County jury has found a Stanislaus County sheriff's deputy not guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the 2017 fatal shooting of a Modesto woman after she led deputies on a low-speed pursuit that ended just across the county line in Ripon.

Deputy Justin Wall, 29, cried as the verdict was announced Monday afternoon in a courtroom in San Joaquin County Superior Court.

"Obviously, we're relieved," said Wall's attorney, Paul Goyette, outside of the courtroom. "... There are no winners in this situation."

He said Wall has been, "super nervous" over the past week waiting for a verdict.

"It has been a really protracted trial and deliberations were really long; a lot of uncertainties" said Goyette. "He's been living this thing for five years ... his whole married life, his whole time with his kids, it's always been a thing hanging over his head so he's got to start a whole new chapter."

He said this case underscores the difficulties peace officers face. Goyette also thanked Stanislaus Sheriff Jeff Dirkse and his department for the support they've shown Wall and his family.

She was struck by two of the .45-caliber bullets. Wall was one of several deputies who, on Feb. 26, 2017, responded to a roughly 3 a.m. report of a woman assaulting a security guard at a Salida hotel. A deputy spotted Yadegar, 46, driving the silver Jetta and pulled her over, but she drove away before the deputy got to her window. A slow-speed pursuit ensued.

Driver's husband says he can move on

Hanibal Yadegar said in an interview last week that even if Wall were acquitted, he was grateful his wife had her day in court.

"It is still a victory to me," he said. "I can report to my son that we did the best we could to bring the shooter of his mother to answer for his behavior. ... No, I won't feel good about this. I will cry over this if I don't get a favorable decision, but I will be able to move on."

He thanked the San Joaquin County District Attorney's Office for pursuing a difficult case and bringing it to trial.

"My heart is content, and I'm in a good place with this case based on the fact that the prosecution did a phenomenal job trying the case. Evin got proper representation. Her voice was heard. And most importantly, we were able to bring this thing to be heard. From the beginning, there were doubts ... that this thing could even get to this point."

Sheriff Dirkse said in a statement that "law enforcement officers often face critical incidents where life-and-death decisions must be made in a split second. Justin was placed in a difficult situation and responded to protect his fellow officers.

"Nothing can change the hurt and loss felt by the Yadegar family, and I want to offer them my sincerest condolences. There are no winners in a tragic incident like this, but we trust our legal process and the outcome reached."

Wall, who declined to comment for this article, held his head in his hands and cried when the verdict was read. Behind him in the audience, his family let out cries of joy and embraced one another. Wall's father, his hands held in prayer, bowed toward the jury.

Yadegar wiped tears from his eyes. He was the first to get up and leave the courtroom with a supporter.

Jurors began their deliberations Tuesday afternoon of last week. The verdict came after two jurors were dismissed Friday afternoon and replaced by alternates who were sworn in Monday morning.

Jurors had several questions and received answers to them in open court Friday afternoon.

Their questions included the Sheriff's Department policy at shooting at moving vehicles, so the testimony of then-Sheriff Adam Christensen was read back to them.

Jurors also had questions on determining whether Wall's actions were reasonable and justified. Goyette, the defense attorney, explained that they were evaluating Wall's actions based on what a reasonable peace officer would do under the same circumstances and with the same information that Wall had at the time.

Much testimony over two weeks

The trial spanned about two weeks and included testimony from other deputies and an officer who were at the scene, a bystander who lives in the Ripon neighborhood where the shooting occurred, a use-of-force expert and Wall.

Wall shot Yadegar following an approximately 18-minute, slow-speed pursuit that started in Salida and ended in Ripon on Feb. 26, 2017. Deputies made contact with Yadegar after a security guard at a Salida hotel reported to police that she'd assaulted him.

When a deputy spotted her Volkswagen Jetta leaving the area, she initially pulled over but then drove away as he approached her vehicle.

Stanislaus County sheriff's deputies used spike strips to flatten her tires and repeatedly gave her instructions to stop, using a public-address system during the pursuit, when she briefly pulled over after getting on the highway, and for about 11 seconds leading up to the shooting.

After a deputy used his baton to break Yadegar's window, she put the vehicle in reverse for less than a second then began to pull forward to drive around Wall's patrol vehicle, which he had parked partially in front of the Jetta with the intention of boxing her in.

Wall fired four shots into Yadegar's Jetta as she was driving forward, striking her once in the wrist and once in the back. The fatal bullet fractured her shoulder blade, went through her left lung, her aorta and portions of her heart before stopping in her right lung.

The shooting was captured on the dash camera of a Ripon police officer's patrol vehicle.

Wall says what he perceived

Wall told investigators and testified during the trial that he fired at Yadegar because he feared for the lives of the deputies and a Ripon officer who were at the rear of the Jetta when Yadegar drove backward. He said he never perceived the vehicle moving forward.

San Joaquin County Chief Deputy District Attorney Robert Himelblau told jurors during closing arguments that the dash camera video shows Wall's perceptions based on his body's actions. The prosecutor said Wall moved forward and with the Jetta as it slowly pulled away from the peace officers, and Wall pointed his arm with his handgun at the Jetta as he fired into it.

Wall's "perception is determined by what he did," Himelblau said, "not what he remembered. (His) body would not move forward if he did not think the car was moving forward."

While the other peace officers at the scene testified they were in fear of being injured or killed when the Jetta backed up, they knew the pursuit would continue once the Jetta pulled forward and around Wall's vehicle, Himelblau said. For instance, he said, the dash camera shows one of the deputies heading back to his vehicle in order to continue the pursuit.

Himelblau — who was not in court Monday but remained in contact with the court, his staff and Hanibal Yadegar — said in an email that "this case deserved to be tried and heard before a jury. The jury took their oath seriously as evidenced by their four days of deliberation. I respect their hard work and decision."

Goyette said during closing arguments that prosecutors' decision to charge Wall was based on a "You should have seen it" rationale, used by those who are uninformed or want to ignore the reality of human perception and what happens to it during tense, rapidly evolving and chaotic circumstances.

Goyette said the dashboard footage fails to capture the complexity the peace officers faced that early morning. He cited a defense expert who testified about how perceptions change under difficult circumstances.

Numerous red flags noted

He said Wall and the other officers were dealing with numerous red flags as they attempted a high-risk felony traffic stop, including Yadegar's failure to pull over earlier in the pursuit, continuing the pursuit after driving through spike strips and not responding to deputies' commands.

Wall testified at the trial that he grew up in a law enforcement family, his father was a deputy and he started his career as a Sheriff's Department Explorer at the age of 17. "I was raised with a servant's heart," he testified. "I felt it was the right career path for me."

Wall began working as a deputy sheriff in 2013 and became a K9 handler in 2015. He was out on bail during the trial, and a department spokeswoman has said Wall remained employed by the Sheriff's Department in a modified, "unarmed support capacity."

Hanibal Yadegar said in a 2017 interview that his wife had a bipolar disorder and was undergoing a manic episode. He said it started about a couple of months before the incident with deputies after she had stopped taking her medication.

The Yadegars opened the Barkin' Dog Grill in 2004 in Modesto. It has become a downtown institution in part because it has provided a venue for musicians, poets and other artists to perform and show their work.

Hanibal Yadegar sued Stanislaus County over his wife's death; the lawsuit was settled for $7 million.

(c)2021 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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