Bitter Justice

Bitter Justice

$33.5M Message to SB County Sheriff’s Department for the Death of Nathanael Pickett II

Gail Fry

As families of young Black men seek justice in the federal courts for the loss of their loved ones at the hands of law enforcement, one jury decided to send a message to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department that “enough is enough” when they awarded $33.5 million to the parents of Nathaniel Pickett II. 

The death of Nathanael Pickett II on November 19, 2015, at the hands of San Bernardino County Sheriff Deputy Kyle Woods and San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Volunteer Citizen on Patrol William “Bill” Kelsey, occurred while Pickett was walking to his temporary home at the El Rancho Motel in the City of Barstow. 

In the initial press release from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department dated November 20, 2015, the incident leading to the death of Nathanael Pickett II was described as an “assault on a deputy” leading to a deputy involved-shooting in the City of Barstow. 

The press release further claimed Pickett jumped a fence into the parking lot of the El Rancho Motel prompting Woods to question him and during that contact Pickett gave “a false name” and became “uncooperative.” When Woods attempted to handcuff Pickett, Pickett tried to run and almost immediately a fight ensued, it read. 

The press release further described how the two fought while on the ground with Pickett striking Woods “numerous times in the face” while refusing to “comply with repeated verbal commands.” The report claimed this caused Woods to fire his weapon “striking the subject,” at which time the “assault ceased.” Woods was then transported to a local hospital where he was “treated for multiple injuries, including broken bones.”

On November 3, 2016, San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office found the fatal officer-involved shooting of Nathanael Pickett II on November 19, 2015 in Barstow “justified” according to its press release while providing a link to a video depicting the altercation and subsequent killing of Nathanael Pickett II, the video can be viewed at: https://vimeo.com/218822039. 

According to the lawsuit filed by Pickett’s family in federal court, on November 19, 2015, 29-year old Nathanael Pickett II, who suffered from mental illness, returned to the El Rancho Motel, his temporary place of residence, after taking a short walk through Barstow. 

Prior to entering his room at the El Rancho Motel, Pickett was approached by San Bernardino County Sheriff Deputy Kyle Woods demanding that Pickett “stop and answer questions” despite the fact that there was no “probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe Pickett had violated the law” and lacking “any other legitimate law enforcement purpose.” 

Based on testimony in federal court, Woods, a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputy, was alleged to have been driving through the City of Barstow, which has its own police department, when Woods observed Pickett crossing the street while allegedly looking at Woods numerous times—prompting Woods to pull over and approach Pickett to question him. 

Woods spoke to Pickett for a short time and was then joined by San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Volunteer Citizen on Patrol William “Bill” Kelsey. Pickett then “resumed walking towards his room at the motel” with Woods in pursuit “again demanding that he stop and answer additional questions.”

Pickett again stopped and “an additional discussion ensued.” Another motel resident advised Woods that “Pickett suffered a mental illness” explaining “he could help Pickett understand the deputy” if Pickett “was having trouble doing so.” Woods “ignored” the offer and advice from the other motel resident. 

After talking for a few additional minutes, Woods approached Pickett and touched him “in some manner” prompting Pickett to run away from Woods. Pickett then fell face down to the ground, rolled to a sitting position and began scooting backwards, away from Woods. 

“Woods then unlawfully, improperly and maliciously shot Pickett,” the complaint filed by Pickett’s family alleged, while Pickett posed no threat of harm to Woods, Kelsey, or any other person. 

Then after re-holstering his gun, Woods and Kelsey “viciously and maliciously begun to beat Pickett, punching and kicking him about the head” while Pickett was “seriously wounded” lying on the ground, the family claimed. 

Woods and Kelsey failed to promptly or immediately provide Pickett with necessary medical attention and Pickett died shortly thereafter of the gunshot wounds inflicted by Woods, the family’s complaint alleged (Kelsey initially named as a defendant in the lawsuit was later dismissed). 

In their answer to the complaint filed by Pickett’s family as to the events as described above, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBCSD) claimed they lacked “information and belief sufficient to enable them to answer” and based their denial on those grounds. SBCSD denied generally and specifically each and every allegation. 

SBCSD declared the lawsuit failed to make its case and stated the department acted in good faith, without malice and within the statutory authority and scope of a police officer’s duties, among other claims. 

After five days of testimony at trial and deliberations, the jury found the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department unreasonably detained or arrested Pickett, that the unreasonable detention or arrest caused Pickett’s injury, damage, harm or death; Woods used excessive or unreasonable force against Pickett and caused Pickett’s injury, damage, harm, or death; Woods delayed needed medical care for Pickett causing injury, damage, harm or death; Woods violently caused harm to Pickett to prevent him from exercising his right not to be unreasonably detained or unreasonably arrested; Woods was negligent causing Pickett’s death and Woods’ conduct was malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard of Pickett’s rights. 

Based on their findings, the jury awarded Pickett’s family $7 million for damages for his loss of enjoyment of life, and pre-death pain and suffering, $6.5 million for past and future loss of Pickett’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society and moral support to his mother, Dominic Archibald, $2 million for past and future loss of Pickett’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society and moral support to his father, Nathanael Pickett I, and punitive damages of $14 million to Dominic Archibald and $4 million to Nathanael Pickett I. 

In an interview with The Voice/Black Voice News, Attorney Jim Terrell explained the county’s opening statements at trial were almost parallel to what the district attorney’s report said as reasons for not bringing criminal charges against Woods. But during the trial, within minutes everything that was stated in the defense of Woods was “completely destroyed and gone because they were built on fraud, lies and absolutely no evidence.” 

When they put Woods on the witness stand, the first thing they asked him was whether he saw Mr. Pickett run away from him? No, he replied. The attorney asked if Woods ever saw Mr. Pickett jump over a fence? Again, he responded, no. Next, the attorney questioned Woods as to whether he had to run and catch up to Mr. Pickett when he was running away? Woods admitted, no—he never did. The attorney then asked Woods did he later find out that Pickett lived there? “Yes,” Woods confirmed. But you were stopping him because you thought he was trespassing, the attorney asked? 

Next, Woods was questioned about attempting to arrest Pickett because, according to Woods, Pickett had white foam in his mouth. Woods claimed he thought Pickett was under the influence of meth. The attorney then pointed out how the autopsy report proved Pickett never had any meth in him. According to the autopsy there was no record that Pickett had any white powder or white foam in his mouth at all. 

“Everything his attorney had stated was wrong,” Terrell stressed, “Everything in that police report was wrong.” Their very own expert said there might be two, one-second clips missing from the film recording of the event and “none of the clips show Mr. Pickett striking” Woods. 

Terrell also noted that it was the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office and the officers who first came out with the public story that Woods had his ribs broken, then his nose broken, but no one ever testified his nose was broken. In photographs taken at the Barstow Community Hospital, according to Terrell, it looked like Woods was almost gleeful or laughing. 

During the hearing, the attorney handed Woods a picture of himself taken about three hours after the incident. He asked Woods to circle any place that was red or swollen, or to circle any marks showing where he was struck. Woods handed the picture back and said, “Not in any of these photos.” The attorney then suggested that even being hit by an 8-year old child 20 times in the face, you would have marks, scratches and blood.

Terrell called it the worst job ever done by a police agency opining, “Its goal was apparent: to exonerate Woods, to back Woods up, to back the sheriff’s department up.” 

“It’s just so very, very sad that you can’t trust the police,” Terrell said. “It used to be when you caught the police with their pants down at least they would admit they did things wrong. Now the game is, no matter what happens, even if it is caught on video, even if a witness saw it happen—officials will lie about that too, they will continue to lie at all costs.” 

“Many believe the taking of a life by officers under questionable circumstances is already a burden too heavy for any community to bear and hope this settlement will send a strong message to law enforcement officers and their leaders—they can no longer afford, nor will the community continue to accept, these behaviors—the costs are too high,” Terrell concluded. 

A request for comment sent via email to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department went unreturned as of press time.

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