Longform

The Bad Shoot

Page 4 of 5

Two hands, two guns, pointed at him from six feet away, that's why he shot Torres: "I feared for my life and the lives of my officers," Picallo testified, which is exactly what the book defines as a "good" or "justified" shoot.

As the prosecution went on with its side, Torres's attorneys offered no objections. With the same feckless ease, they gave up Hector's main defense right, completely yielding Picallo's cross-examination. Hector was horrified. He stopped writing notes to anxiously whisper to Barzee and Vucci: "What are you doing? Why don't you show Picallo's lying?"

The lawyers said lamely that "fidgety talking" doesn't look "confident" or "innocent." Barzee just kept telling Torres to "Relax, relax." The people's counsel believed they had "a sure thing." As a tactic, Barzee claimed, he'd decided against trying to make the cops look bad. "He told me: 'Let's not make this us against them; we're going to ask for a free pass!' But that's not how things worked out."

Hector was only struck by one cap. Picallo didn't kill the suspect. But it wasn't from not trying. He fired at Torres three times across the length of a small apartment living room, approximately eight feet, according to crime scene diagrams. Two slugs were recovered: one from the wall behind where Hector was sitting, one from the sofa. (The third was inside Torres.) But Barzee and Vucci didn't want their defense to look "indiscreet" or "desperate" by working that angle, they repeated. Putting Picallo and the other officers on the spot wouldn't help Torres's case ...

During the trial, defense counsel had a stack of officer depositions documenting discrepancies, disregard for protocol, and violations of the defendant's civil liberties. There were 3000 pages of court files. The officers involved admitted they'd broken into a minor pot dealer's pad without a search warrant. During the bond hearing months before the trial, Picallo was asked about the department's search warrant policy. He responded: "What do you mean by a search warrant policy?" He wasn't sure about the rules for getting one. Picallo confessed his unit didn't even attempt it, despite the obvious dope buyers and Kevin Phillips's information. Apparently legal permission to invade someone's house was too ticky-tack for the steely blue GIU...

Further evidence of police heedlessness: The cops couldn't decide who'd secured the .25. Both Gonzalez and Veloz claimed credit. They'd offered no explanation for why Veloz didn't fire at the "dangerous" Torres, even though he'd entered the room first. The defense chose not to "point fingers" at wound-up officers who seemed to be expecting the O.K. Corral when they jumped a nickel-and-dhTorres the officers had to be "engaged in the lawful pursuit of their duties."

The night of the bust, the officers had had nearly an hour to get their stories straight before homicide detectives, who investigate police shootings whether or not someone dies, showed up. The bad shoot went off at approximately 1:05 a.m., and the officers involved weren't separated and questioned until 3:00 a.m., according to the deposition from their boss, Det. Tom Romagni. Somehow the officers' story became: Kid teams up with drug dealers and picks up fake gun because real one wasn't enough to fight cops(!).

According to Barzee and Vucci, the jury wasn't supposed to buy it, but they did. Torres got ten years. "When they read the verdict, I was stuck in the moment, I felt empty, like someone ripped out my heart," Torres says. His lawyers paid for the fact that they'd never cross-examined state witnesses, or called any of their own, although three people, Travis Allen, Carlos Campos, and Luis Castaneda, all gave prior statements supporting Torres's claim that he was not holding guns. Defense didn't think they were "credible"; Stephen Cohn, the doctor who treated Torres, wasn't even subpoenaed. Torres says he didn't take the stand in his own behalf, because his legal team thought he looked too thuggish. In hindsight, he believes the jury might have liked to hear him explain himself ...

"'Hector, you're as good as free.' That's what the public pretenders [had] said," Torres quips about his April 2001 trial. "Then it turned into 'Good luck on appeal' and 'We got a good appeal department'! [And] I never saw them again!"

The attorneys aren't saying much now. Barzee maintains he can't speak about a case going to appeal, but Vucci offered other reasons for his reluctance: "One of Torres's options now is to file a motion for ineffective assistance of counsel regarding his defense lawyers." He declined to elaborate out of concern Torres could sue for "malpractice," though he did not concede any negligence.

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Humberto Guida
Contact: Humberto Guida