Mario Woods Case: Judge Leaves Door Open for Ex-Police Chief's Testimony

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Then-Police Chief Greg Suhr at an April 3, 2015, press conference. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

Federal Judge William Orrick ordered the San Francisco District Attorney's Office Thursday to produce parts of its case file on the 2015 police slaying of 26-year-old Mario Woods. He also left open the possibility that former Police Chief Greg Suhr could be forced to give sworn testimony in the federal civil rights case brought by Woods' mother.

Orrick said in court that there is "no basis for the deposition of the district attorney," something attorneys representing Gwendolyn Woods had sought in lieu of access to the DA's case file, which attorneys representing San Francisco and the officers who shot Woods are also seeking.

District Attorney George Gascón objected to subpoenas from both sides, citing attorney privilege.

"With respect to the district attorney," Orrick said from the bench, "I'm inclined to order that the documents as requested by the city and county be produced."

Those include "all the fact-based documents," Orrick said, such as witness statements and photographs. If the district attorney thinks something in the case file gets at privileged information -- he has argued in court filings that witness interview transcripts and recordings are privileged -- Orrick ordered that the office describe the information in a written filing. He'll then rule on whether it should be disclosed.

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Orrick indicated, as KQED reported last week, that Suhr's statements in the days following the Dec. 2, 2015, shooting in the Bayview could bolster Woods' long-shot legal claim that aims to hold the city and high-ranking officials accountable for the death.

Suhr said on Dec. 4, 2015, that bystander video circulating on social media within hours of Woods' death showed him raise his arm, holding a knife, toward an officer before the first shot was fired.

"We were able to enhance one second of the tweeted video," Suhr said at a town hall meeting two days after the shooting, "which shows the officer engaging with Mr. Woods and Mr. Woods’ arm with the knife outstretched. The officer fearing for his safety. ... He fired in defense of himself, and the other four officers fired in defense of that officer.”

He reiterated the statement on Dec. 7, 2015, hours before KQED published video analysis showing Woods' arm raised only after the first shot was fired, as he appears to fall backward.

"The video was pretty easily debunked by the media and ourselves," Gwendolyn Woods' attorney, Adante Pointer, said in court Thursday.

"Was this a rush to judgment, was this somebody who essentially ignored the facts, or displayed the 'facts' in such a way to mislead the public?" Pointer said after the hearing. "We think that’s highly relevant to determining whether the person who was the captain of the ship of SFPD was steering it away from what we think is the iceberg of accountability."

But Orrick agreed with Deputy City Attorney Sean Connolly that Woods' lawyers had not yet shown that the city should be held responsible for the death -- through a legal mechanism called a Monell claim.

"It's all supposition," Connolly argued in court. "You don’t get to just use the word Monell and go on a fishing trip."

Plaintiffs cite investigative reporting from multiple news organizations in legal filings attempting to establish that the SFPD under Suhr "nurtured a permissive culture of excessive force and racial bias."

The city questioned the validity of those news reports in court filings.

"Defendants dispute plaintiff's use of inflammatory, sensationalized and unproved media allegations as a basis for any part of this legal inquiry," the city's position on Suhr's deposition begins.

Orrick directed Woods' attorneys to take depositions from other SFPD officials knowledgeable about the Police Department's policies before revisiting whether Suhr should be compelled to testify.

"At the moment, I just don’t have enough to know," Orrick told Pointer in court.

Pointer acknowledged that others may be able to testify about use-of-force rule changes before and after Woods was killed. But, he said, only Greg Suhr can explain why he said what he did about the shooting.

"You can infer by what a person says or what they do what they were thinking," Pointer said after the hearing. "But only when you ask them point-blank, under oath, should you get the real truth."