OC District Attorney, Tony Rackauckas, cleared Officer Nicholas Bennallack of any “criminal culpability” for the killing of Manuel Angel Diaz on July 21st of last year. The report was given Wednesday afternoon during a “media round-table” at the Orange County District Attorney’s office law library located in the 401 block of Civic Center Drive in Santa Ana.
Manuel’s shooting was one of two “back-to-back” fatal police shootings that took place in Anaheim last summer that caused uproar and an uprising in various predominantly poor neighborhoods of Anaheim. The killing of Manuel Diaz gained major media attention when a cell phone video that was taken moments after Manuel was shot went viral on the internet and was presented in some media outlets.
The video displays Diaz lying facedown on the ground, with his hands handcuffed behind his back. This was instants after witnesses recounted seeing Diaz being shot in the back, and then again in the head. Officers examining the area seemed more concerned about moving residents away from the scene than getting immediate medical attention for Diaz, who was still alive at the time. “Why would you guys shoot him in the head?” questioned a woman in the video. “He didn’t have nothing,” expressed another person, as officers are continuously heard ordering people to “back up.”
Hours after the shooting, officers responded to protesting Anna Dr. residents by indiscriminately firing rubber bullets and tear gas into the neighborhood. Footage was caught by media outlets as women and children were seen running away from the officers, and one police dog “accidentally escaping” an officer’s vehicle and attacking a man and woman who were protecting a stroller carrying their months-old baby.
Witnesses assert that Diaz was shot in the back, and then shot in the head “execution-style” after he fell to the ground.
A 20-page report released Wednesday by the Office of the District Attorney, describes the Orange County District Attorney’s (OCDA) Office’s “investigation and legal conclusion” in connection with the shooting of Manuel Diaz on July 21, 2012. The report states that investigators from the OCDA Special Assignment Unit (OCDASAU) interviewed 49 witnesses and obtained APD reports, including summaries of “52 witness interviews conducted by the APD.” Of these witnesses, the D.A. report includes the testimonies of only five female witnesses (Jane Doe 1-5) and two male witnesses (John Doe 1 and 2), with one of them (John Doe 1) being an “approved civilian ride-along” who was “interested in becoming a police officer.”
The report also includes the testimonies of Officers Nicholas Bennallack and Brett Heitmann, both involved in the “pursuit” that resulted in the killing of Manuel Diaz.
In his testimony, Officer Bennallack claims that on the day of the shooting, he noticed the “suspect” “leaning into the passenger’s window” of a car parked in the Anna Dr. alley and the suspect was “dressed in a manner consistent with the style often worn by gang members.”
This resulted in Diaz attempting to flee the scene, and Officers Bennallack and Heitmann following on a short foot pursuit. Once having Manuel in a “cornered” area in one of the apartment complexes, Bennallack claims Manuel had, what he “believed to be a firearm,” in his waistband. Bennallack then claims that Diaz “began to turn,” and in order to “save his life,” he drew and “fired his weapon two times.”
In the District Attorney’s report, all three female witnesses (Jane Doe 1, 2, and 3) reported Diaz being shot from the back and then shot in the head after falling to the ground. The D.A. report explains that “it may be argued that Officer Bennallack did not actually believe that Diaz posed a threat” expressing that the logic in this argument is that “shooting someone in the back is not consistent with a motive of self-defense.” The report then responds that “a person with a drawn, loaded gun is potentially dangerous regardless of which direction they are facing” and if one finds himself “in such a scenario, he has only a split second to decide how to proceed – and he might chose to shoot in self-defense” at the “gunman before the gunman turns, thereby shooting the gunman in the back.” The report, however, makes it clear that “after handcuffing Diaz, Officer Heitmann said he and Officer Bennallack patted Diaz down and looked for weapons in the area. They found no weapons on or around Diaz.”
Following the shooting in July last year, many Anna Dr. residents stated that police officials surveyed the neighborhood, offering to purchase any videos related to the shooting. The D.A. report describes one such officer asking, “How much do you want for it?” after a witness (Jane Doe 1) told the officer she had footage of the shooting. The report’s John Doe 2 also describes a uniformed officer offering to buy his and other residents’ cell phones.
The D.A. report then states, “Because Jane Doe 1 and John Doe 2 made reports suggesting that officers tried to suppress evidence of the shooting, we have considered the possibility that fellow APD officers could have fabricated evidence to corroborate Officer Bennallack’s report…. But we have no actual evidence to that effect.”
The report concluded that “the evidence does not support a finding of criminal culpability on the part of Officer Bennallack, and that there is significant evidence that the officer’s actions were reasonable and justified under the circumstances when he shot Diaz.”
The news of the “justified” ruling by the Orange County District Attorney this week did not come as a surprise to Manuel’s family, especially since D.A. Tony Rackauckas has had a history of removing “criminal culpability” from most officer-involved shootings he’s investigated. Officer Nick Bennallack was also cleared of the fatal shooting of 36-year-old Bernie Villegas just six months prior to Manuel’s killing.
Diaz’s family anticipated the “justified” ruling and held a “pre-justification” demonstration last Tuesday in front of the Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana.
Wednesday night, Manuel’s mother, Genevieve Huizar, attended a candlelight vigil in Downey to memorialize the 3rd year anniversary of the killing of Steven Bours by Downey police. She joined to support the Bours family and other mothers and family members of fatal-police shooting victims in their ongoing struggle for justice for their loved ones.
“My son did not have a weapon, my son did not have any drugs – it was proven! And they still shot him in the back, in the lower back first and then the head,” explained Genevieve during the vigil.
She expressed that the investigation should be taken to a federal level in order to achieve a better examination of the case.
“Let somebody else investigate,” stated Genevieve, “Let the federal government come in and do their job because they’re going to prove otherwise than what the D.A. said.”
A demonstration is planned for Thursday morning at the OC Superior Court in Santa Ana to continue putting pressure on D.A. Tony Rackauckas and demand accountability for the numerous deaths at the hands of police.