Jurors in San Francisco Thursday exonerated the city of Walnut Creek and four of its officers in connection with the shooting death of a 22-year-old man during a bizarre altercation at the Creekside town home complex in December 2012.
Antony Banta Jr., who worked as a hairdresser in the city, was shot and killed by officers who encountered him as he brandished a chef’s knife at the top of a stairwell at the complex around 3 p.m. the morning of Dec. 27, 2012.
Police had been summoned to the residence by the girlfriend of Banta’s roommate – who told dispatchers she woke up to find Banta on top of and choking her boyfriend, lost in a violent rage totally out of character for him.
“I think maybe he’s sleepwalking,” the woman could be heard saying on a 911 tape played for the jurors as the couple called police after barricading themselves in their bedroom.
Officers told the court that as they approached the apartment that morning they found Banta standing at the top of a stairwell, a chef’s knife in his upraised hand. Banta reportedly ignored several orders to drop the knife and instead told officers to shoot him, the officers opening fire when Banta suddenly rushed down the stairs, knife in hand.
Despite what was later determined to be a crippling shot to the hand inflicted as he rushed down the stairs Banta reportedly still gripped the knife as he lay wounded, jurors heard. Believing him to still be a danger Sgt. Mike Sugrue and Officer Guy Ezard fired a second round of shots, including one believed to be the fatal shot, which struck Banta in the eye.
Banta’s parents sued the city of Walnut Creek, Sugrue, Ezard and two other officers for $15 million after the shooting, maintaining that the slightly built Banta posed no threat that night, that the officers initially fired in a panic and that the officer’s additional shots constituted excessive force. Officers Holley Connors and Amber Griffith were dismissed as defendants in the suit as only the second – fatal – round of gunfire was eventually considered.
Expert witnesses hired by Banta’s family testified that the second volley of shots represented excessive force, and that Banta should have been regarded as mentally ill as soon as police heard his demands that they shoot him.
Sugrue told the court that the woman who had called police that morning approached him after the shooting, Sugrue learning for the first time that Banta was not an intruder as officers believed but a roommate whose behavior that night had turned violent and totally of character.
The roommates told officers and investigators looking into the circumstances surrounding the shooting that Banta had returned home the previous evening at about 6 p.m. after visiting his family in Yuba City for the Christmas holidays.
They said Banta made everyone dinner, that they all exchanged Christmas presents, then watched a movie. The roommate’s girlfriend said Banta went out at about 9 p.m. for a short walk. She said she and her boyfriend were upstairs in their room at about 10 p.m. She went to sleep while her boyfriend stayed up and played video games and that when she next awakened it was to see Banta attempting to strangle her boyfriend – Banta’s friend and roommate.
A forensic pathologist said that investigators found no indication that Banta had previous psychotic episodes. Extensive toxicology tests showed that Banta had low levels of alcohol and marijuana in his system. The 0.013 blood-alcohol level was not enough to cause any change in behavior, and it was difficult from tests to determine when Banta had ingested marijuana—anywhere from within five hours of death to 30 days.
The pathologist offered three possible explanations for Banta’s behavior that morning: He took a designer drug that isn’t detectable on even the most sophisticated toxicology tests, he had an undiagnosed mental illness, or he suffered from a form of marijuana-produced psychosis that has been noted in medical literature over the past decade.