Jury Finds in Favor of S.F. Police Officers Who Fatally Shot Mentally Ill Man

1 min
 (Alex Emslie/KQED)

Update 4:50 p.m. Tuesday, March 20: A federal jury found in favor of two San Francisco police officers Tuesday who fatally shot a mentally ill man in his home as he walked toward them with an X-Acto knife in his hand.

The verdict marks an end point to over seven years of litigation over the December 2010 death of Vinh "Tony" Bui. San Francisco lost a pretrial appeal to the 9th Circuit in which judges wrote that a jury could find "the relatively slight and somewhat impaired Bui, who made no threatening motions with the small blade in the officers' presence, did not present a significant threat of death or serious physical injury."

But after a week-long trial and about four hours of deliberation, the jury found in favor of officers Austin Wilson and Timothy Ortiz. Specifically, the jury found neither officer used excessive force when they shot Bui, and neither officer was negligent.

"While we are grateful for a verdict in favor of the officers and the City, there are no winners or losers in cases like these. Any loss of life is tragic," Deputy City Attorney Sean Connolly said in a written statement. "Police officers have a difficult and unenviable job and are frequently called upon to make life and death decisions in dangerous and evolving circumstances. We appreciate that the jury took the time to consider the facts and the law before ruling in the officers’ favor."

Plaintiff's attorneys did not respond to request for comment.

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Original Post 4:08 p.m. March 7: Chien Van Bui and his wife, Ai Huynh, went to great lengths over the life of their mentally ill son, Vinh "Tony" Bui, to shield him from dangerous, potentially violent situations. They succeeded until late 2010, when he was fatally shot at age 46 in the living room of the family's San Francisco home by two city police officers.

Bui's death is the subject of a federal civil rights trial that opened Wednesday after nearly eight years of pretrial litigation and a recent appellate ruling that SFPD officers Timothy Ortiz and Austin Wilson are not automatically immune from liability.

Tony Bui was born in Vietnam in the early 1960s, according to the plaintiff's opening statement, as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was escalating. His father was a soldier in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam -- allied with the U.S. -- and his mother took care of Bui and his four siblings.

In 1975, the Vietnam War ended, and the elder Bui was out of a job. The family scraped by selling handwoven baskets, which Tony Bui helped deliver. But five years later, his parents began to worry he would be drafted, "and because he was slow, he would not survive," plaintiff's attorney Karen Leigh Snell told the jury.

Family members living in the U.S. were able to sponsor Bui's immigration, Snell said. He and one sister moved to San Francisco, by way of a refugee camp in Thailand.

Bui was a busboy for several years while family members worked to sponsor immigration for his parents, Snell said. Eventually, the extended family was reunited and living in a three-bedroom house in San Francisco's Portola neighborhood.

“He was a beloved member of a close-knit family, and they miss him,” Snell said.

The house was more crowded than usual on Dec. 29, 2010 -- Bui's then 15-year-old niece, Melina Herrera, was hosting a gathering for more than a dozen classmates.

"It was winter break and we were all hanging out," Herrera, now a 22-year-old San Francisco State University student, testified after opening statements Wednesday. "My parents were super welcoming."

But there was a family rule scrawled on paper signs throughout the house. They said, with some variation: "Do Not Slam the Door."

The sound of a slamming door was known to send Bui into a crisis. By then he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

"Slamming the door was something that would cause him to act differently," Herrera said.

One of the teenagers slammed the bathroom door, and Herrera got word in the backyard that there was an issue with her uncle, she testified. She went inside to check it out, and waited for her friend, Sharon Hong, to come out of the bathroom. When she did, Tony Bui appeared behind her.

"Sharon was walking toward me ... and Sharon shrieked," Herrera said. "I thought Tony had slapped her in the back."

Actually, Bui had punctured Hong's back with a small razor-sharp X-Acto knife he used to open mail, Herrera testified. Photographs of the wound shown in court during the plaintiff's opening statement show a tiny red mark near the center of the teen's lower back.

Herrera called her mother "because she's the person I would ask what to do next," she testified, "because Tony was in the state of mind where typically he would go to San Francisco General Hospital."

That had happened once about 10 years earlier, according to reporting by the San Francisco Chronicle, and SFPD officers had calmly persuaded Bui to go with them to the hospital.

But this time would be different.

SFPD officers Austin Wilson and Timothy Ortiz responded to Herrera's call about the stabbing shortly before 4 p.m., followed a few seconds later by Inspector Kevin Whitfield. And although a dispatcher broadcast multiple times that the call involved a person with mental illness, the officers would later say they didn't know that information.

At the door, the officers talked to Cindy Tran, one of Bui's sisters and the only adult home at the time.

"Cindy Tran told the officers nothing happened," Deputy City Attorney Sean Connolly said during the defense's opening statement. "She inserts confusion into the situation."

Ortiz broadcast back to dispatch that the call appeared to have no merit and that the officers were sorting out what exactly had happened.

Whitfield, a seasoned investigator, "knew something wasn't right," Connolly said. "He could see in that living room 10 to 20 teenagers sitting very quietly. He had a suspicion that the police were not getting the full story."

Connolly continued: "He said, 'Someone called about a stabbing. Was anyone here stabbed?' "

Several of the teens gestured to Hong, who lifted a sweater to reveal a several-inch blood stain that had seeped into a white undershirt, shown on a photograph the defense displayed in court.

Now, Connolly said, the officers were dealing with an emergency, and didn't have time to make any kind of plan.

“The problem, fundamentally, with plaintiff’s case and all the things they think could have happened or should have happened -- there was no time to do any of those things,” Connolly said.

The group of kids directed them toward the back of the house, and the officers converged around the closed bathroom door. They ordered Bui out, and he emerged, still holding the small razor blade.

Tran began yelling at the officers, "Police man, he's mental!" plaintiff's attorney Snell told the jury. "The officers told her to get back," she said.

They ordered Bui to drop the knife, but it's not clear he understood what was happening, Snell said.

"Cindy could see Tony’s face," Snell said. "She’ll tell you he looked pale, scared and confused."

The officers backed up some 12 to 15 feet into the living room full of people as Bui moved forward.

"Tony paused at the threshold between the hallway and the living room, and these two officers opened fire," Snell said.

Ortiz fired twice, missing once and hitting Bui once in the chest, Snell said. Wilson fired once and also hit Bui.

"He died 45 minutes later," Snell said. "A reasonable officer in their situation would not have shot and killed my client's son."

Snell argued the officers had plenty of time to understand the situation, come up with a plan and consider alternatives that may have saved Bui's life. She said that the house was calm, and no one was in danger when they arrived.

But Connolly argued that time is not something patrol officers have, despite evolution of SFPD policies since the Bui shooting that emphasize "time and distance" when officers are confronting mentally ill suspects armed with bladed weapons.

"This case boils down to 74 seconds," he said, referencing the time between the officers' first conversation with Tran at the home and the moment they broadcast that shots had been fired. "They shot Bui because that's what they are trained to do in this difficult situation. They shot Bui because they had to."

Bui's parents, however, are banking on an unusual outcome for their civil case.

Recent California case law holds officers accountable if they unreasonably create a dangerous situation that leads to deadly force. And the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the jury could find "that the relatively slight and somewhat impaired Bui, who made no threatening motions with the small blade in the officers' presence, did not present a significant threat of death or serious physical injury."

"They will tell you they were afraid for themselves and the teenagers," Snell said. "They will also tell you if they had known he was mentally challenged, they wouldn’t have done anything differently. Ladies and gentlemen, that is unacceptable."