A Northern California judge has ruled that there is enough evidence for a trial to proceed in the case of Yuvette Henderson, who was killed by Emeryville police in the wake of a 2015 shoplifting incident.
Judge Donna Ryu dismissed the city of Emeryville’s request for a summary judgement against the claim brought by Henderson’s family that the officers who killed Henderson used excessive force and violated her constitutional rights, leading to her shooting death.
In seeking a summary judgement, the city was asking the judge to rule that there was not enough evidence for a jury to potentially find that Officers Warren Williams and Michelle Shephard violated Henderson’s rights during the incident. Judge Ryu thought otherwise.
“I think we will be able to demonstrate to a jury that Henderson was not a threat, that she was helpless on the ground disarmed and wounded (when she was killed),” said Emily Rose Johns, an attorney at Siegel & Yee, which is representing Henderson’s family.
“What this means is that we can continue towards trial, but doesn’t necessarily mean we will go,” she said, pointing out that that there would be no trial if both parties reach a settlement before the May 15 trial date.
Henderson was killed February 2015 by Emeryville police officers who were responding to a shoplifting incident at Home Depot. After fleeing from police, the grandmother and mother of four was killed with an AR-15 assault rifle.
In Ryu’s decision, the judge found enough discrepancies between the officers’ testimonies and forensic evidence and eye-witness accounts to suggest that a jury might agree with the family’s claims.
For example, a surveillance video from the location of the shooting appears to show that Officer Williams ran towards Henderson with his gun drawn and did not first use his car for cover when he arrived as he testified he did.
“A reasonable juror could find that Williams is not fully credible because he did not accurately testify about a basic fact, namely, how he arrived at the (location) and what he did immediately upon arrival,” the judge’s decision says.
Forensic evidence also found that the direction from which Henderson suffered her first gunshot could contradict Williams’ claim that Henderson, who had a gun, was moving toward him while drawing her weapon on him.
Perhaps most important was contradictory evidence found during the third round of shots from police, which ultimately ended Henderson’s life.
Officer Williams testified that after Henderson was wounded, it seemed like she was “trying to pop her head up” to look for her gun, which she had dropped and lay three to five feet from her.
Yet an investigation later done by the Oakland Police Department found that Henderson’s gun lay six feet away from her and that her body lay in the opposite direction and turned away from the gun.
“A reasonable juror could thus determine that Henderson did not pose an immediate threat to Williams because she was unarmed and wounded, and because although she had carried a gun, she had not previously fired or aimed it at him,” according to the judge’s decision.
“Such a juror could conclude that Williams’s use of lethal force … was therefore an unreasonable and excessive use of force under the circumstances.”
According to Cat Brooks of the Anti Police-Terror Project, the officers could have taken other actions to ensure that Henderson would still be alive today.
“It’s important to remember that not long before (Henderson’s death), a white man was walking the same neighborhood with a gun and actually shot at police, but they chose to talk him down and take him into custody alive,” Brooks told the Post.
Brooks said it is rare that families get the chance to take cases of state violence to trial.
“It just warmed my heart to know that they got a little bit of relief after such a horrific experience,” she said.