Starkly different accounts in man’s fatal shooting by Prince George’s officer

Civil trial to determine whether officer is liable for Langley Park man’s death in 2008

February 27, 2011

The encounter between Prince George’s County police Cpl. Steven Jackson and Manuel de Jesus Espina, which ended with the officer fatally shooting Espina in a Langley Park apartment building, lasted just a few minutes.

But it produced a wealth of evidence: an intermittent trail of Espina’s blood from a stairwell to a basement apartment, where Jackson shot him in the torso; eyewitnesses who saw the action; and an audio recording of a 911 call from inside the apartment moments after the 2008 shooting.

Now, a civil jury in Prince George’s County Circuit Court will decide what that evidence means.

Jurors must determine how Espina, 43, who was hanging out with friends at the apartment complex where he lived and was not suspected of any crime, was killed on his birthday by a moonlighting officer.

The story is unfolding in a civil trial to determine whether Jackson, 27, is liable for Espina’s death. Espina’s relatives have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Jackson and the county. The lawsuit also names as a defendant the apartment management company that employed Jackson as a security officer.

Jackson has not been charged in the shooting, which occurred Aug. 16, 2008. Prince George’s prosecutors said they are continuing to investigate.

Over the past year, the county has settled several high-profile police brutality lawsuits. For example, the county settled a civil lawsuit last month involving a botched drug raid in which sheriff’s deputies, who had been called in to assist police, stormed the home of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo and fatally shot his family’s two black Labrador retrievers. County officials and Calvo declined to disclose the amount of the settlement.

Many civil trials alleging that police acted outside the law when using deadly force come down to judging a split-second decision by an officer.

The Espina case is different.

Espina’s attorneys allege that an enraged Jackson beat, pepper-sprayed and finally shot an unresisting Espina, then concocted a story about being attacked by as many as seven men before he fired his gun.

Jackson and his attorneys contend that Jackson used deadly force because he believed he was about to be overpowered by Espina and as many as six other men. “It was a fight,” Jackson testified. “It was beyond resisting [arrest by Espina]. It was active aggression.”

The autopsy showed that Espina, who was 5-foot-5 and weighed 160 pounds, was beaten badly around his left eye and suffered multiple bruises and contusions on his arms, legs and back. Jackson, who is three inches taller than Espina was and outweighed him by about 30 pounds, testified that he experienced some soreness after the encounter but suffered no contusions or bruises.

Initially, police said the confrontation began when Jackson tried to arrest Espina in the stairwell of the apartment building for an alcohol violation. But Jackson testified that that was not the case.

Espina was one of about a half-dozen men gathered in front of the entrance to 8004 14th Ave., a three-story brick apartment building. It was warm, and some of the men, including Espina, were drinking beer, Jackson testified.

Jackson, 27, said he parked his marked police cruiser near the men and watched them briefly. One man walked away, but the others didn’t. Jackson said he got out and headed toward them. Espina was not behaving in a disorderly fashion or making loud noises, Jackson said, but he was concerned Espina and the other men might be blocking the path of pedestrians.

Espina and the other men went inside the apartment building, and Jackson followed, he testified, to investigate whether the men were doing anything wrong.

On the second-floor landing, Jackson patted down one man, then started to pat down Espina, he said. Espina suddenly swung his right elbow at him, Jackson said. Jackson said he pepper-sprayed Espina and handcuffed his left wrist, but Espina resumed fighting.

Jackson said he and Espina fought, and Espina fell down the stairs to the landing below. But a plaintiff’s witness, Noe Cordova Garcia, testified that Jackson began beating Espina right away, threw him down the stairs and grabbed Espina’s right foot and pulled it, as if he wanted to break the man’s knee.

The two men continued down to the ground level, toward a basement apartment where Elvia Rivera lived with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Rivera testified that she saw Jackson beating Espina, and opened the door.

Jackson and Espina entered the apartment. Jackson testified that Espina fell to the floor and, on his back, began kicking. Jackson said he struck Espina with his police baton, and was suddenly pushed from behind and fell onto a couch.

Suddenly, four or five men joined the man who had pushed him, Jackson said. They pressed in on him, grabbing for his baton and gun belt, Jackson said. Jackson said he unholstered his gun to keep it secure, and when Espina reached for it, he fired.

Others witnesses inside and immediately outside the apartment said they did not see the four or five additional men that Jackson described. There is no evidence that police searched for anyone.

Rivera testified that Jackson shot an unresisting Espina.

Timothy F. Maloney, an attorney for the Espina family, played a recording of a 911 call made by Rivera moments after the shooting. On the audiotape, Espina’s wife, Estela, is heard wailing. A male voice screams, “Shut the [expletive] up! [Expletive] you!” Maloney said the voice belongs to Jackson.

Jackson testified that he did not curse at Estela Espina or anyone else.

As Espina lay dying, his son, Manuel de Jesus Espina Jacome, administered CPR on his father, Jackson testified. When a backup officer arrived, Jackson said, he directed the officer to arrest Espina Jacome.

The younger Espina was charged with second-degree assault and resisting arrest. Prosecutors dropped the charges.

The trial is expected to last an additional two weeks or so.

castanedar@washpost.com

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