Chief, lieutenant face manslaughter charges for ordering SWAT raid

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No one disputes that Cheri Lyn Moore died in a barrage of gunfire unleashed by police, and no one claims Eureka's former police chief or his lieutenant fired a single shot.

But they're the ones facing manslaughter charges over the mentally unstable woman's death in a case that has ensnared this coastal Northern California city in a bizarre legal tangle.

Criminologists and law enforcement veterans say they've never heard of a case in which commanding officers have had to defend themselves against criminal charges for merely issuing orders.

"It's a novel legal theory to indict people who didn't do something, particularly when they didn't say, 'Go ahead and shoot this woman,"' said David Klinger, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminal justice professor who has studied police use of deadly force for the Justice Department.

On April 14, 2006, Moore was grieving the one-year anniversary of her son's death when she began suffering a "mental health crisis," according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by another son.

Eureka police soon arrived at her apartment, and a standoff began when she would not answer the door.

The 48-year-old grandmother brandished a flare gun from her second-story window, threw clothes into the street and threatened to burn down the building, according to police. After two hours, Moore was seen putting the gun down, and officers stormed the apartment.

Only the police know exactly what happened next -- since they were the only ones to emerge from the apartment alive. Moore was brought down by nine shots fired from a shotgun and an assault rifle after the officers said she pointed the flare gun at them.

She died at the scene.

Chief David Douglas and Lt. Tony Zanotti were not part of the raid on Moore's apartment; they had been directing the tactical response from a command post elsewhere in the apartment complex.

Both plan to plead not guilty to involuntary manslaughter when they're arraigned early next year, said Bill Bragg, a Eureka lawyer representing Douglas.

If convicted, they each face a maximum of four years in prison.

The police officers who actually fired the fatal shots currently do not face any criminal charges.

The grand jury indictments announced last week against the two commanders remain sealed. Humboldt County prosecutors could not be reached for comment by the Associated Press and have said little publicly about the case.

The manslaughter case against Douglas and Zanotti appears to hinge on whether their decision to send in a SWAT team showed judgment so poor that it amounts to criminal negligence.

"It's pretty clear from the evidence that the problem came from the order to go into the apartment," said Gordon Kaupp, a San Francisco attorney representing David Moore in the wrongful death suit, filed in May. "The cops here knew she had a mental health history and chose to ignore (that)."

According to the lawsuit and mental health advocates who held vigils in the aftermath of Cheri Lyn Moore's death, the decision to break down her door showed a complete lack of sensitivity required when dealing with the mentally ill.

Crisis negotiators should have had more time, they argue. And police should have used non-lethal weapons to subdue her.

"A lot of people with mental health issues have real problems with the cops," Kaupp said. "You don't escalate tactics, because it frightens people and provokes a response."

But the officers involved contend they made the right call to go in.

"She was an immediate threat to human life, to the building, to the officers, and to civilians surrounding that area," Zanotti testified at a September inquest into Moore's death.

Law enforcement groups and lawyers defending the officers also argue that finding the commanding officers criminally liable for the split-second decisions they make in unpredictable and potentially violent situations could seriously hinder police in the future.

"It gives one pause to think what this most extreme kind of second-guessing will do to chill their willingness to keep facing those dangers for us," Eureka City Attorney Sheryl Schaffner wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press. Her office is overseeing the officers' defense in the civil case.

The indictments against Douglas and Zanotti come as debate over Moore's killing still simmers in this city of 26,000 in the heart of the Humboldt County redwoods.

Hers was not the only fatal police shooting last year. In December 2006, police shot and killed 51-year-old Jonni Honda, a child molestation suspect, following a 33-hour standoff at a motel.

Two months before that, officers fatally shot 16-year-old Christopher Burgess, who allegedly was armed with a knife during a foot chase. District Attorney Paul Gallegos ruled that both shootings were justified.

In a region known as an anti-establishment haven for marijuana growers and radical environmentalists, the relationship between police and some residents is persistently delicate, complex and sometimes tense.

"I know that the police oftentimes get blamed when what you have is a failure of the mental health system," said Ira Blatt, president of the Humboldt County chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, who believes Moore's death could have been avoided if she'd had better, more consistent access to treatment.

"Law enforcement first responders have a very difficult job."

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