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Next Steps in the Mario Gonzalez Wrongful Death Case

Just one week after the Alameda County Coroner’s office declared Mario Gonzalez’s death a homicide, renowned California civil rights lawyers Haddad & Sherwin have filed a federal wrongful death suit against the City of Alameda, California, and the involved police officers. The suit was filed on behalf of the murdered man’s five-year-old son. Says Julia Sherwin, one of the attorneys filing the suit, “Little Mario has just been missing his father terribly. He still asks his mother why his Papi doesn’t wake up.”

Restraint Asphyxia in California

Mario Gonzalez was a 26-year-old Latino man who was killed by Alameda police officers on April 19, 2021. Gonzalez was unarmed, minding his own business, and posing no threat to himself or others. 

Gonzalez died after Alameda police restrained him on his stomach for five minutes in a case that is reminiscent of the murder of George Floyd. (In fact, this murder happened just one day before a Minnesota jury found a police officer guilty of homicide in the George Floyd case.) 

Local residents called 911 on Gonzalez after he seemed dazed and intoxicated, but not threatening or violent, in a public park. One of the callers has admitted that Mario wasn’t doing anything wrong, but his presence in a public park was scaring the caller’s wife.

Three police officers were dispatched instead of 911 personnel informing the callers that their reports did not require a law enforcement response. Upon arriving and investigating, the officers found no probable cause for an arrest.

However, when Mario didn’t produce his identification, the officers grabbed him and put his wrists into painful control-holds. At this point the officers forced him face down in the dirt.

The officers put their weight on Mario’s back and shoulders, and at one point appeared to have a knee on Mario’s neck. Mario struggled and gasped for air, saying, “I didn’t do nothing, okay?”

The officers continued to pin Mario face down in the dirt and put their weight on him, for minutes after he was handcuffed with both hands behind his back. After more than five minutes of this prone, weighted restraint, Mario became unresponsive. After Mario was unresponsive, the officers then rolled him onto his side, then onto his back, checked for a pulse, and began chest compressions. Mario Gonzalez remained unresponsive and was later taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The Alameda County Coroner’s report shows that “the officers were applying pressure to [Mario’s] torso and legs with at least some of the weight of their bodies” and that the “stress of the altercation and restraint” contributed to his death, along with his obesity, alcoholism, and recent use of methamphetamine. Ultimately, the coroner’s officer ruled the death a homicide but said the main cause was “toxic effects of methamphetamine.” 

Attorneys for his family dispute this cause.  Gonzalez had .9 milligrams of meth per liter in his system according to the toxicology report. Sherwin explains that this is much like concentrations of the drug seen in recreational use. Says Sherwin, “It’s a pretty low level of methamphetamine.”

Michael Haddad, a leading police brutality attorney, explains that the amount of methamphetamine found was well within the United States government’s “normal recreational level.” The risk of death from methamphetamine is just 1 in 353,000. 

The Wrongful Death Suit

The crux of this wrongful death case is that Mario Gonzalez did not need to die. As a result of the actions of the police officers and the negligence of the Alameda police, his son, Mario Gonzalez, Jr. has been deprived of a loving father. The suit claims that Gonzalez was the victim of excessive force and that his arrest and death were unconstitutional. Haddad & Sherwin state there was no reason to arrest the 26-year-old in the first place, let alone pile on top of him to put him in handcuffs, leading to his death.

“Mario was a peaceful, calm person. He was a very mellow guy,”  says Mario Jr.’s mother, Andrea Cortez. “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.”

The suit names then-Interim Police Chief Randy Fenn and officers Eric McKinley, James Fisher, and Cameron Leahy as the defendants. The officers have been on leave since Gonzalez’s death. 

Haddad describes the death as a result of “restraint asphyxia,” the second such death at the hands of Alameda police in two years.  “Mario Gonzalez’s death was unnecessary and tragic. How many more people will have to be killed by police officers who ignore the kindergarten wisdom that people can’t breathe if you kneel on their back?” Haddad says. 

Beyond this federal suit filed with the Northern District of California, Haddad and Sherwin are calling on the District Attorney of Alameda County to criminally charge the officers. They are also urging reforms such as requiring all law enforcement officers to undergo crisis intervention team training.

Michael Haddad and Julia Sherwin are acclaimed California civil rights attorneys specializing in cases of police shootings, wrongful death, restraint asphyxia, and excessive force. Highly rated by their peers, Haddad & Sherwin LLP has won numerous large jury verdicts and settlements for their seriously injured clients. Please take a look at their results, reforms, and attorney profiles on this website.

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