A Minneapolis police officer made a rookie mistake when he gunned down Fong Lee, a lawyer for Lee's family told jurors Tuesday, then the officer lied about the youth having a gun because he knew killing an unarmed teenager would ruin his career.
Michael Padden, representing Lee's family in their wrongful death lawsuit against the officer and the city of Minneapolis, said in his opening statement that Officer Jason Andersen showed "unbelievable, incomprehensible incompetence" when he shot Lee eight times on July 22, 2006, outside an elementary school.
But Gregory Sautter, a Minneapolis assistant city attorney, told the jury that Andersen was justified in shooting Lee.
He said they'd hear that both Andersen and a state trooper with him saw Lee holding a gun -- and that Lee disregarded numerous orders to drop it.
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"This case is an urban American tragedy ... the evidence will show that Andersen's actions were entirely legal, justified and proper," Sautter said.
Padden claimed police planted a gun -- a Russian-made .380-caliber Baikal semiautomatic pistol -- next to Lee's body to cover up the fatal mistake.
Padden told the jury they'd hear testimony that not a speck of blood, no fingerprints or any other trace evidence was found on the gun after it was recovered about three feet from Lee's body. Yet he said the scene was so bloody that the Fire Department was called to hose it down and wash Lee's blood away.
Padden said several eyewitnesses would tell the jury they never saw Lee with a gun.
"Any gun that was there would have had to be placed there by law enforcement," Padden said. "Nobody else had access to the area."
A key issue in the trial in U.S. District Court is the history of that Baikal pistol. It had been reported stolen from a Minneapolis resident, Dang Her, during a burglary in 2004.
Her testified Tuesday that police later told him his gun had been recovered from a snowbank and linked to an armed robbery, and that he would get the gun back after that case was over.
Speaking through an interpreter, Her testified that he didn't hear from police again until a few days after Lee was killed, when two officers came asking about the gun that had been found at the scene. Her said he told them he understood that police had been holding his gun since 2004.
"They didn't really say anything but they looked at each other and their faces turned red," Her said. "That was their expression."
In his opening statement, Sautter said the evidence would show that Her's Russian-made gun was never in police possession before Lee was killed -- that the gun recovered from the snowbank in 2004 was actually a rusty Czech-made FNH 7.65-caliber semiautomatic pistol.
He suggested it was only through a police mistake back in 2004 that an officer notified Her his gun had been recovered.
Much of the case will turn on which side's witnesses the jury believes, and the early testimony highlighted that many facts remain in dispute.
The first two witnesses testified that the incident began when Andersen, still in his squad car, started following a group of teenagers on bicycles, including Lee.
The witnesses testified they saw the squad car bump Lee's bike and knock him to the ground. They testified they saw Lee hoist up his loose, baggy pants before taking off on foot around the school.
But the jury saw a security video from the school that appeared to show the squad car never hit Lee, and that instead he threw down his bike before he took off running.
Video shot by another security camera at the school, which jurors will see later, shows Lee running past with Anderson in pursuit. The plaintiffs maintain it shows that Lee was not holding a gun. But it also doesn't show the actual shooting.
Sautter told the jury that in the final confrontation, Lee continued to threaten Andersen with the gun before the officer fired the final, fatal shot.
The trial is expected to last at least a week or two. Outside the courtroom, Padden said he won't put a figure on the actual and punitive damages Lee's family is seeking until his closing arguments.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)