The Orange County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved a $1.1 million settlement for the mother of a seizure-plagued Laguna Niguel man who was killed in a conflict with two Orange County sheriff’s deputies in 2013.
The settlement, which was approved on a 4-0 vote in closed session — Supervisor Andrew Do was absent — comes seven weeks after U.S. District Judge James Selna upheld a $360,000 jury award to the mother of 21-year-old Connor Bishop Zion.
In January, a federal jury found that Michael Higgins, who is now an Orange County sheriff’s sergeant, used excessive force as he subdued the knife-wielding Zion on Sept. 24, 2013.
“This puts to rest a very, very difficult period in her life,” said attorney Dan Stormer, who represents Zion’s mother. “No amount of money can compensate for the loss of Connor, but it does show a recognition on the part of the county of its obligation. These deputies, in my opinion, were completely out of control and instead of punishing them, they rewarded them with medals. That can’t be changed, but this public acknowledgment of this large sum of money is very important as a recognition of the harm.”
After Selna upheld the jury verdict on April 15, Kimberly Zion said she was pleased with the legal outcome of the case, telling City News Service that it “was important to me there was wrongdoing (found) in this.”
Higgins “had a responsibility not only to his partner, but to my son,” she said, referring to Higgins’ testimony that he acted to save the life of his partner, who was stabbed by Connor Zion, who was suffering from mental health issues at the time.
“I don’t think he acted in an honorable manner,” Kimberly Zion said of Higgins, who stomped on her son’s head after he was shot several times.
Higgins wounded the young man with six bullets, then stood over him and opened fire again “execution style” before “stomping” on his head three times, one of his mother’s two attorneys told jurors in the trial of her federal excessive force and wrongful death lawsuit.
Plaintiff’s co-counsel Cindy Panuco said Connor Zion, who was living with a roommate in Laguna Niguel at the time of his death, was a ballroom dancer struggling with nocturnal epilepsy. She said his mother flew in to Orange County to check on her son the night of the shooting, after his roommate said he was having seizures. When she saw her son, he had a “blank stare” and was “looking right through her,” seemingly not recognizing her, Panuco said.
Deputies were called when a struggle erupted over a kitchen knife, the attorney said.
According to Panuco, Higgins was the second deputy to arrive. She said he responded to the scene in a squad car that had a malfunctioning computer, so he could not get regular updates on the suspect’s condition. He also had difficulty hearing dispatchers from his car radio because of the high volume from his siren, the lawyer said.
Much of the evidence in the case came from dashcam videos from the responding deputies.
As Zion wounded his mother and roommate in the struggle over the knife, neighbors called 911.
Juan Lopez, then a deputy but now a sergeant, was first on scene. The plaintiff’s attorneys argued that he made a tactical error in getting so close to the scene of the incident and should have staged further away while waiting for backup.
Zion emerged suddenly from his apartment complex, prompting Lopez to retreat from the knife-wielding suspect, Panuco said. Higgins, who was still in his squad car, nearly backed up into his partner, the attorney said.
As Lopez fell to the ground, Zion stabbed him in an arm, Panuco said. Higgins eventually got out of his car as the suspect ran away, prompting the deputy to open fire, she said.
She said an expert concluded that if the deputy had not fired a second round of shots, and Zion had received immediate medical attention for the six initial gunshot wounds, he would have survived.
Higgins failed to follow county policy and other law enforcement standards to subdue the suspect with handcuffs or pepper spray or other types of non-lethal force once he was down on the ground, wounded, Panuco said. Instead, he stood over Zion and emptied his gun of nine bullets “execution style,” then “takes a running start and stomps on his head” three different times, Panuco said.
Experts from both sides had differing opinions on what ultimately led to the suspect’s death.
Higgins believed his partner, Lopez, suffered potential mortal wounds when the suspect stabbed him three times “so hard it severed nerves in Juan Lopez’s arm,” said the county’s attorney, Daniel Spradlin. He also told jurors that Lopez “thought he was going to die” and was “ambushed” by Zion.
Zion was heard declaring, “I’ll kill you (expletive)” as he emerged from the apartment complex, Spradlin said.
An expert for the defense concluded that the first round of bullets killed the suspect, telling jurors that Higgins got off another round because it was possible Zion was playing possum.
Higgins gave the suspect two “verbal warnings to stay down, don’t get up” before slamming his heel into Zion’s head, Spradlin said, maintaining that “deadly force was used appropriately” to protect Lopez, the witnesses and the suspect’s mother and roommate.
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