Hernandez Beating

At issue is 2005 arrest made after man got into fender bender near Burnet and Steck

According to Assistant City Attorney Fred­er­ick Hawkins, the force used by three Austin Police officers in subduing Ramon Hernan­dez back in 2005 was absolutely necessary because Hernandez "for some reason, kind of went psychotic that day," he told a six-woman federal jury during opening arguments this week in a civil rights case brought by Hernandez.

At issue is the Sept. 21, 2005, arrest of Hernandez, made by three officers – Chris­to­pher Gray, William Heilman (who resigned slightly more than a month after the incident), and Joel Follmer (a rookie at the time, who was ultimately terminated) – after Hernandez got into a fender-bender accident near Burnet Road and Steck Avenue during a break from work and on his way to get a breakfast taco. Soon after police arrived at the scene of the accident, Hernandez began to feel poorly – he couldn't find his driver's license (unusual for him because he is generally pretty organized, he testified Monday), and that, combined with personal problems he was having with his now-ex-wife, triggered the onset of an anxiety attack: He felt short of breath and, it seems, claustrophobic. So, Hernandez grabbed his Bible and ran.

According to Hernandez's attorney, Amber Vasquez Bode, her client was just looking for a quiet space to collect his thoughts and pray. Apparently that didn't translate to Heilman, who took off after Hernandez – who had scaled a fence (he couldn't explain why he did that, he told the jurors) before dropping to his knees close to a nearby transmission shop. That's where he was when Heilman found him.

According to Hawkins, Hernandez then rose and approached Heilman in a menacing manner; Hernandez disputes that, saying he rose with his hands over his head in a nonviolent gesture of compliance. According to Hawkins, Hernandez then resisted arrest – Heilman used his Taser on him three times and hit him with his baton at least once before Hernandez dropped to the ground. There, Heilman still struggled to cuff him.

According to Hernandez, he was so freaked out by Heilman's unnecessary use of physical force that he panicked, thinking Heilman was but a thought away from using his gun to shoot him. In an effort to keep that from happening, Hernandez testified Monday, he placed his hand on Heilman's holster, to cover the weapon. That was when Gray and Follmer arrived on the scene, Hawkins said, but what they saw, he said, was Heilman engaged in a "death struggle" with an out-of-control suspect trying to take the officer's gun.

What happened subsequent to the backup officers' arrival was captured on an Austin Police Department in-car video camera: With Hernandez already cuffed and lying face down in the dirt (and, it turned out, a fire-ant mound), Heilman is standing with his foot on Hernandez's neck, while Gray kneels on Hernandez's back. Hernandez wiggles on the ground – in an attempt to roll over and catch his breath, he told the jury this week – which prompts Gray to deliver a dozen or so hard blows to Hernandez's kidney area.

According to Hawkins, Hernandez's actions were menacing, and that's why the officers wouldn't let him roll over: Hernandez's feet were not handcuffed – which would, at least theoretically, have given him a chance to do battle with the officers, Hawkins explained. (Heilman and Gray were acquitted of criminal official oppression in 2006, and a charge against Follmer was subsequently dropped.)

That does not excuse the excessive violence brought by the officers, Bode said. At issue, she argued to the jury, is only what happened after Hernandez was in handcuffs: The officers "beat and Tasered my client while handcuffed, for no good reason," a clear violation of his civil rights.

Although the city was dropped as a defendant in the suit, Hawkins agreed to help attorney Tom Stribling defend the case. The trial is expected to conclude this week.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

APD, Fred­er­ick Hawkins, Ramon Hernandez, Chris­to­pher Gray, William Heilman, Joel Follmer, Amber Vasquez Bode

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