In the moments after a wild, high-speed chase, narcotics agent Mike Walker believed he saw a fugitive parolee flash a weapon and had no choice but to shoot, his defense attorney said.
The only problem with that, argued a prosecutor, is that the victim was the wrong man, was unarmed and was shot in the back -- something he called reminiscent of "the Old West."
The historic case against Walker, California's first drug enforcement agent charged with killing in the line of duty, ended on Wednesday as dramatically as it began. Spending a total of eight hours with closing arguments, the two sides urged jurors to rely on the law, the evidence and their internal sense of justice to return a just verdict.
And with that, deliberations in the high-stakes trial began.
Walker, an agent with the elite Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, is charged with voluntary manslaughter for firing on Rodolfo "Rudy" Cardenas, a father of five and small-time drug dealer whom Walker pursued and then shot in what amounts to a tragic case of mistaken identity.
Walker appeared stoic as jurors filed out of Judge Rene Navarro's San Jose courtroom. There was a group of supporters from the Department of Justice seated behind him in the Hall of Justice courtroom. On the opposite side of the aisle, the Cardenas family and various outraged citizens looked on anxiously.
For nearly two months, jurors have heard opposing versions of what led up to the Feb. 17, 2004, shooting, which started as a simple surveillance operation.
On that day, Walker and other agents were charged to keep watch on the residence of David Gonzales, a parolee who was in violation for not reporting his change of address.
When Cardenas drove past the location, Walker mistook him for Gonzales and followed. Cardenas led the agent on a wild pursuit through downtown streets that two San Jose police officials testified they deemed too dangerous to join.
Walker caught up with Cardenas on North Fourth Street, where Cardenas ditched his minivan and ran down an alleyway adjacent to the Shires Memorial Center retirement home.
The story blurs from that point.
According to the agent, Cardenas tried to lure him in by running slowly down the alley with his hands held suspiciously near his waistband. After scaling a chain link fence, Cardenas turned and revealed what Walker insists was a gun. The agent fired, and testified in his own defense that he believed his choice was kill or be killed.
But the prosecutor disputes virtually everything Walker said.
Deputy District Attorney Lane Liroff said Cardenas did not have a gun and that a surveillance video of the North Fourth Street site indicates there wasn't enough time for events to have played out the way Walker described.
Finally, three witnesses testified they did not see anything in Cardenas' hands.
Liroff repeatedly called Walker a "cowboy" and told the jury of six men and six women that the agent exercised "hair-trigger judgment" that resulted in the death of an innocent man.
The high-profile case has drawn intense public scrutiny, from enraged members of Cardenas' family and their supporters and also from members of the law enforcement community, which believes Walker is being unjustly prosecuted.
In his four-hour closing argument, defense attorney Craig Brown reminded jurors of a slew of defense experts who testified that Walker acted properly under the circumstances. And he recalled the testimony of two medical experts who said the trajectory of the bullet indicates Cardenas could have been turning toward the agent when he was shot in the back.
"You have to put that badge on yourself," Brown said, addressing the jurors for the final time Wednesday. "And with that state of mind, standing in the shoes of Mike Walker, ask yourself, 'Would I have done the same thing?' "
Throughout the trial, Walker insisted he saw a gun in Cardenas' hands, even though no firearm was found. That the agent made such a fatal mistake -- and that Cardenas was shot from behind while running away -- was hammered into jurors' minds by prosecutor Liroff.
"The truth is when you shoot someone in the back it's the same as in the Old West," Liroff said during his rebuttal argument. "It's not self-defense."
Walker faces up to 11 years in prison if convicted.
December 7, 2005 - San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Lawyers Give Fervent Closings
Final Arguments In Drug Agent's Case
By Yomi S. Wronge
Allowing state narcotics agent Mike Walker to go unpunished for shooting a man in the back would be a "slippery slope to hell," a prosecutor said during closing arguments Tuesday.
"He shot a man who was running away. A man who didn't have a gun. He was unarmed," said Deputy District Attorney Lane Liroff, who accused Walker of "reckless misconduct" in a case "that isn't even a close call."
Walker, 34, faces one voluntary manslaughter charge for fatally shooting Rodolfo "Rudy" Cardenas on Feb. 17, 2004, at the end of a pursuit in downtown San Jose.
In contrast to the prosecutor, defense attorney Craig Brown began his closing argument by drawing the jury's attention to the crowd of law enforcement agents assembled in the courtroom. They came "to bear silent witness to the fact they understand what it takes to be out there," putting themselves on the line for the sake of the community.
Given similar circumstances, they might have done the exact same thing as Walker, Brown said. As for the case at hand, Brown said there was "not only a complete absence of proof, but a complete failure to prove guilt."
Brown is expected to finish his closing arguments today.
In his impassioned arguments earlier in the day, Liroff called Walker a "hot dog" who wasn't following orders, wasn't doing his duty and wasn't defending himself that day. "He seems to want to re-enact 'Smokey and the Bandit' on the streets of San Jose," Liroff said of the high-speed car chase that ended at a North Fourth Street retirement center.
Walker says Cardenas ditched his car, lured him down an alley, climbed a chain link fence and attempted to run away. Walker claims the 43-year-old father of five, while fleeing, turned on him, gun in hand, leaving the agent no choice but to shoot.
Liroff called Walker's version a "fabrication" concocted to support a bogus claim of self-defense. He also alleged some of Walker's fellow Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement agents conspired to protect him.
The prosecutor tried to tie together evidence for the jury that he said proves Walker's guilt, including eyewitness statements and a security camera videotape.
The tape indicates that Walker fired his first round of shots 8.6 seconds after arriving at the alley adjacent to the Shires Memorial Center retirement home. Liroff said that doesn't give Walker enough time to do and see all the things he testified to: chase Cardenas down the alley, watch him struggle a few times to scale a fence, run at least 35 feet across a parking lot, turn back toward Walker and flash a gun.
"The videotape just doesn't lie," Liroff said.
During his testimony, Walker refused to concede he made an error in judgment even though no firearm was ever found.
Police found a small folded knife in Cardenas' left front pants pocket. Liroff said it is implausible that Cardenas would have flashed the knife at Walker with his right hand, suffered a life-threatening wound and then put the knife into his left pants pocket.
Liroff concluded by admonishing the defense for "demonizing Mr. Cardenas. To make him worthy of killing."
"Rudy was a lot of hope and not much delivery at that time," Liroff said in describing Cardenas' history of marital problems, joblessness, low-level drug dealing and abuse. Liroff said he didn't deserve to be killed by an overzealous cop.
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