A Cook County jury awarded $350,000 in damages Tuesday in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the mother of a black teen fatally shot by a Chicago police officer during a chase on the Fourth of July nearly four years ago.
In ruling the shooting of Christian Green unjustified, jurors found that Officer Robert Gonzalez did not "reasonably believe" that his life was in danger when he unloaded 11 shots at the 17-year-old from his police SUV, striking him once in the left side of his back.
Seated at the defense table in a dark gray suit, Gonzalez showed no reaction as the verdict was read in Judge Elizabeth Budzinski's cramped Daley Center courtroom. After the jury filed out, Christian's mother, Patricia Green, stood a few feet away from the officer, sobbing softly into a tissue.
"I think that the outcome could have been greater," Patricia Green told reporters outside the courtroom, referring to the relatively low payout. "But the money can't take the place of my son. ... I can never get him back."
The 10-member jury deliberated for about 16 hours over three days before reaching its verdict — the first time Gonzalez, a veteran tactical officer, has been found liable for wrongdoing in his 19-year career.
But Gonzalez's legal troubles aren't over. He's facing two pending federal lawsuits — including one filed Monday as the jury in Green's shooting was still deliberating — alleging he helped frame drug suspects as part of a corrupt band of officers working under disgraced former Sgt. Ronald Watts.
Gonzalez is also slated to give sworn testimony in two other police-shooting lawsuits where his partner fired the fatal shots. As in Green's shooting, both of those cases — the 2012 shooting of 16-year-old Rickey Childs and the 2014 death of Ronald Johnson III, 25 — involved a black suspect allegedly armed with a gun who was shot in the back while fleeing officers.
Gonzalez, who remains a tactical officer in the Wentworth District, left the courthouse Tuesday without comment. A Law Department spokesman said in an emailed statement that the city was "disappointed" in the jury's verdict and considering legal options.
Outside court, attorney Victor Henderson, who represents the Green family, said jurors told him after the verdict that the officers' accounts of the shooting were "contrived, too polished and coordinated," echoing long-standing issues with the way police shooting probes were handled.
"This investigation just fell short on every level," Henderson told reporters outside Budzinski's courtroom.
While Henderson had not demanded a specific dollar award, he asked the jury in his closing argument on Friday to consider the pain and suffering Green endured as well as the grief his family continues to go through — the kisses his mother no longer gets in the morning, the graduations, birthdays and grandchildren she will never see.
"The money doesn't bring Christian back, but it is a symbol," Henderson said in his argument. "It shows that, yeah, he was somebody. Yeah, he mattered. Yeah, he counts."
On Tuesday, Henderson said jurors indicated in their post-verdict discussion with him that the $350,000 award was something of a compromise, with a few holdouts leaning toward finding in favor of the officer.
"They had to work it out," he said.
Budzinski said jurors declined her invitation to speak to the media before leaving the Daley Center.
According to court records, Gonzalez and his partner, Officer George Hernandez, were patrolling around 1 p.m. July 4, 2013, when they responded to a call that fellow tactical Officers Manuel Leano and Douglas Nichols Jr. were chasing a person with a gun.
Surveillance video from a nearby liquor store that was played during the trial showed Green trying to throw a gun into a trash can as he sprinted up to 57th and State streets. The gun bounced off the can's rim onto the sidewalk. Green doubled back, bent quickly and picked it up before taking off again.
Gonzalez testified that he saw Green pick up the weapon and was yelling from his unmarked SUV, "Police! Drop the gun! Drop the gun!" But the teen ignored him, he said. As the vehicle came to a stop at the edge of the lot, Gonzalez said he saw the barrel of Green's gun pointed in his direction from about 25 feet away, but he could not recall the exact position of the teen's body at the moment he opened fire.
"I was just focused on the gun," Gonzalez testified. "That barrel was pointed right at me, and I fired my weapon as quickly as I could."
Green was struck in the left side of his back by a bullet that pierced his lung and heart before exiting his chest. He died en route to Stroger Hospital. His gun, meanwhile, was found in the vacant lot about 75 feet from his body, according to court records.
Initial police reports showed that Green had been shot in the chest, a fact that had not been corrected when the officers were interviewed by the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates police shootings.
Hernandez, Nichols and Leano all backed up Gonzalez's account in their interviews with IPRA, which ruled the shooting was justified in September 2014.
The trial drew media attention in part because Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson was called to testify. At the time of Green's shooting, Johnson was the acting street deputy who responded to the scene and signed off on the officers' use-of-force reports of the incident. He also gave a sworn deposition in the lawsuit last year.
In his testimony earlier this month, Johnson said police officers are sometimes justified in shooting a fleeing suspect in the back. He recounted being shot at years ago by a fleeing suspect who had turned and pointed a weapon at him, grazing him in the head.
"Just like this," testified Johnson, demonstrating for the jury by moving his body a quarter-turn and pointing with his finger like a handgun at the wall behind him. "So I know it can happen."
In her closing argument, Assistant Corporation Counsel Victoria Benson said Gonzalez was absolutely justified in firing at Green once he saw the open barrel of Green's semi-automatic handgun pointed at him.
But Henderson said it was ridiculous to think that Green, who stood 5 feet, 5 inches and weighed 116 pounds, would turn to confront police officers chasing him in vehicles, especially when he was running full tilt and about to make his escape.
In his closing argument Friday, Henderson noted that Green's body was found 150 feet from where the shell casings from Gonzalez's weapon landed on State Street, calling into question the officer's claim that he could clearly see the barrel of the gun pointed at him.
Henderson also said it made no sense that Gonzalez would miss 10 of 11 shots from just 25 feet away.
"Officer Gonzalez is sitting here telling you guys a bunch of lies because he doesn't want to admit that he did something wrong," Henderson said.