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Dallas officer testifies he isn’t responsible for Tony Timpa’s death in police custody

Officer Danny Vasquez was the first person called to the witness stand in the long-awaited federal civil case.

Update:
Updated at 8:47 p.m. with additional details from testimony.

For the first time in seven years, a Dallas police officer accused in Tony Timpa’s death was questioned publicly under oath Monday about what happened to the 32-year-old in the midst of a mental health crisis when police responded to his call for help.

Officer Danny Vasquez said he wasn’t responsible for his death.

Vasquez, who joined the department 10 years ago, was the first person called to the witness stand in the long-awaited federal civil case, which began this week after significant legal hurdles and delays following Timpa’s death on Aug. 10, 2016, in Dallas police custody.

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Vasquez watched his body-camera footage stoically on the witness stand as officers restrained Timpa. Jurors glanced between the video and Vasquez as Timpa’s cries for help filled the courtroom.

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Attorneys for Timpa’s family peppered the officer with questions about his training for mental health calls and whether they took actions to avoid restricting his breathing.

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“We were reacting to Mr. Timpa,” Vasquez said about why he and the other officers didn’t develop a plan when they found Timpa handcuffed on the side of a road on Mockingbird Lane. “He had a pattern … of calming down and acting out and calming down and acting out.”

Vasquez is one of four Dallas police officers in federal court this week to answer the Timpa family’s lawsuit, which asserts that one officer used excessive and deadly force while Vasquez and two others cracked jokes despite opportunities to help Timpa.

At the start of the day, U.S. District Judge David C. Godbey declined a last-minute motion filed by the city of Dallas to move the trial out of Dallas. An eight-person jury of five women and three men was selected by about 1:30 p.m. At least four jurors took notes throughout proceedings.

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Timpa, 32, called 911 from the parking lot of a porn store on Mockingbird Lane and said he was afraid and unarmed, adding that he was off his prescription medication for anxiety and schizophrenia. Body-camera footage shows he was handcuffed behind his back and pinned face down by officers as he yelled for help.

He was dead within the hour. The Dallas Morning News first reported Timpa’s death in a 2017 investigation after police refused to say how a man who called 911 for help ended up dead.

Attorneys for Timpa’s parents say he died from “positional asphyxia,” which happens when people can’t breathe because their airway is restricted. Attorneys for the city say that isn’t mentioned in the autopsy report.

The city of Dallas is representing officers Dustin Dillard, who knelt on Timpa’s back for nearly 14 minutes, Raymond Dominguez, Kevin Mansell and Vasquez. All but Mansell remain on the force, and each of them were present, dressed in suits instead of police uniforms, Monday in the courtroom.

Dillard, who faces allegations of excessive force, argues his actions were necessary to gain control, while the other officers contend they had no duty or opportunity to intervene because they didn’t think the force was unreasonable, according to court records.

Geoff Henley — the attorney for Timpa’s mother, Vicki Timpa — told the jury during opening statements that officers should’ve employed a “five-man takedown” on Timpa, a police tactic used on someone experiencing a mental health crisis. One officer holds the person’s head and the others hold different parts of their body so their breathing isn’t restricted.

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As soon as he was cuffed, Timpa should’ve been rolled over, but that’s not what officers did, Henley said. He said medical experts will dispute the defense’s arguments, then wrote terms like “cyanosis,” “asystole” and “diaphragm” on a white board in front of the jury. He jotted down “911″ at the bottom. Henley told jurors they will learn more about those words during testimony from medical experts.

“What is it that we can do about fulfilling the promise of 911?” Henley asked. “Tony’s death of some 14 minutes and seven seconds was reckless, unforgivable and outright despicable.”

“Literally, Dustin Dillard was on top of a dead man for more than three minutes,” Henley said. “There are three other officers who completely — you are going to learn — abandoned their training.”

Mansell, Vasquez and Dillard were indicted in 2017 on criminal charges of misdemeanor deadly conduct, but Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot dismissed the case after he said three medical examiners would not testify that the officers acted recklessly.

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Watch: Vicki Timpa speaks of her son Tony Timpa who died when Dallas Police officers pinned him down
Vicki Timpa is angry at police and the justice system as she deals with life without son Tony. (Tom Fox)

Each side’s story

Questions about whether the trial should be held outside Dallas were also raised in July, when jury selection was initially set to begin.

Godbey threatened at the time to move the trial to Lubbock, saying he was “hugely unhappy” with the prevalence of media coverage leading up to jury selection, according to the transcript. He delayed the trial until this week and issued a gag order, which prevents attorneys, Timpa’s family and others directly involved from speaking publicly about the case.

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It was unclear what occurred Monday during the change-of-venue discussion. Court staff directed media and observers to an overflow room to watch proceedings, but the televisions were turned off. When jury selection began, a court staffer only turned on audio. Observers were allowed back inside the courtroom after the jury was selected.

John Cheves Ligon, an attorney for the city of Dallas who represents the four officers, said during opening statements that Timpa led a secret life of alcohol and drug use, mental health problems and heart conditions, and his death was a result of that life.

Timpa had been to rehab four times and his family told officials they didn’t know of his medical issues, Ligon said.

He said they weren’t trying to smear Timpa or dance on his grave, but his actions were relevant to what occurred the night he died. He played audio from two 911 calls by a woman and a security guard who reported that Timpa was running up and down the highway and climbing a bus, adding that the officers had to hold him down because he was fighting and paramedics couldn’t get his vitals.

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He acknowledged that the officers made unprofessional comments, but he said none were made by Dillard and the officers never thought Timpa was injured. He said the jury must judge based on what the officers knew, not what they could’ve done.

“Cops are not computers,” Ligon said. “The officers did what they were trained to do. … They can’t save everyone. And that night, they couldn’t save Tony.”

“After all these years, they get to tell their story,” he added, referencing the officers.

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Susan Hutchison — who represents Timpa’s father, Joe Timpa — showed a PowerPoint presentation during opening statements that included photos of Timpa throughout his childhood — one of Timpa holding a basketball, another of him kneeling on a field with a football in his hands and wearing a red jersey with the number “65,” one of him at graduation holding a child.

Vicki Timpa, his mother, rocked forward slightly and quietly sighed, then brought a tissue to her eye as the photos appeared on a screen. A photo came up of Timpa with his arms in the air standing alongside co-workers at American National Logistics Inc., where Hutchison said he “performed every job.” Hutchison said he grew up with and helped run the company, which earned $40 million to $50 million a year.

She said Timpa struggled but was also successful.

“Consider what it’s worth to lose your child,” Hutchison told the jury, adding that they must put a dollar amount of someone’s unending pain. “It’s a Herculean task, so you will each have to be Hercules.”

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She gestured to Joe Timpa, who sat near the jury watching Hutchison.

“He will tell you, very sincerely, that he wishes it was him instead.”

Body-camera footage

Body-camera footage shown in the courtroom shows Timpa briefly roll toward the curb before officers turn him face down, pin his handcuffed arms behind his back and zip-tie his legs together.

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Dillard holds him to the ground with his knee in Timpa’s back for more than 13 minutes, using a controversial policing method known as the “prone position.”

As Timpa falls unresponsive, the officers laugh and joke. “Tony, it’s time for school. Wake up!” one officer says. Another mimics a teen: “I don’t want to go to school! Five more minutes, Mom.”

On the witness stand, Vasquez agreed during questioning that Timpa was already handcuffed by a private security guard and Vasquez switched out the handcuffs when police arrived.

He admitted he made jokes about waking him up for breakfast and received a written reprimand for the comments.

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Dillard rubbed his face with his hand as jurors and the other officers watched Vasquez’s body-camera footage on an enlarged screen. As Timpa’s final moments played out, Vicki Timpa turned her face away from the video and raised her fists to her ears.

A juror glanced at her as she stared at the ground and took off her glasses. She glanced only occasionally at the video that showed her son crying out for help more than 30 times.

As the footage continued to play, she stood up and rushed out of the courtroom. At least three jurors looked at the door as she hurried out. Vicki Timpa didn’t return as Vasquez finished his testimony.

The trial is expected to continue Tuesday with Vasquez back on the witness stand. Other officers and medical experts are expected to testify during the trial.

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It’s unclear what total amount in damages Timpa’s family is seeking. His parents have their own attorneys. Hutchison said Joe Timpa is seeking around $40 million. Henley hasn’t specified how much Vicki Timpa will request.

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