Chief Dyer testifies in excessive force trial

Stephen Willis was hit by 14 bullets during the March 2009 confrontation.
December 11, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Fresno police officers fired more than 40 shots in the confrontation that killed their son, but a Valley family has big obstacles to overcome in its wrongful death lawsuit.

Stephen Willis, 23, was hit by 14 bullets during the March 2009 confrontation, including several hitting his back. But he was also holding a gun at the time.

Chief Dyer told Action News this was only the second time since he became chief 12 years ago that he's had to testify in a federal excessive force trial after an officer-involved shooting. He only testified for about an hour, but what he said may be the key to the case.

Stephen Willis had an entire life ahead of him until he came across two Fresno police officers in March 2009. Greg Catton and Daniel Astacio were looking for possible gang activity when they came across Willis, who they said was clearly drunk. Minutes later, the officers had shot and killed him. Willis' father didn't want to discuss the shooting as he left federal court, where he and his wife are suing the police department. But he did talk to Action News shortly after the deadly confrontation.

"The police are here to protect us, not execute our children," he said in 2009.

Police chief Jerry Dyer also chose not to speak as he walked out of the courthouse. But on the witness stand, Dyer said his officers are trained to take shooting their weapons seriously

"I think what the defense is trying to show here, through the chief, is that they've had proper training and proper supervision and therefore the jury should not find them liable in any way whatsoever," said ABC30 legal analyst Tony Capozzi.

Dyer admitted he's sometimes concerned about the number of bullets officers fire in confrontations. Catton and Astacio fired more than 40 rounds at Willis. Neither man is still employed by the Fresno Police Department, although Catton was honored just three months ago for his heroic role in saving a woman's life.

During the trial, both officers testified they saw a muzzle flash coming from a gun Willis was holding. His family's attorney says evidence from the gun proves that's unlikely, and that even if he did fire once, police shot first.

"I'm not so sure who shot first makes a difference," Capozzi said. "If the police officer sees someone that has a gun, reaches for a gun, pulling it out of a holster, they're not going to wait for him to shoot first. It's either your life or theirs."

Toxicology reports show Willis had a blood alcohol content of 0.29% at the time of his death, and had a little marijuana residue in his system as well. The trial could wrap up this week.


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