The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a $1.1-million settlement for the mother of a man who was shot 18 times and had his skull fractured after a sheriff’s deputy stomped on his head.
A federal jury ruled in January that the deputy used excessive force in the death of Connor Zion, 21, and decided his family should receive $360,000 in damages. An additional $740,000 was tacked on for the “tremendous amount of litigation” after the lawsuit slogged through the legal system for four years, said Dan Stormer, the attorney for Zion’s mother.
“You always have mixed feelings at the end of a case in which someone was killed,” Stormer said. “One million dollars seems like a lot of money, but it’s money being spent because police chiefs keep allowing their officers to use excessive force.”
Stormer had argued for a larger settlement and reached an agreement with the county on the $1.1-million settlement last week.
An attorney for the county did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Zion was killed in September 2013 during an encounter with two deputies in Laguna Niguel. According to official accounts, he had been chasing another deputy with a knife through a condominium complex when Deputy Michael Higgins arrived.
The other deputy, Juan Lopez, tripped, and Zion lowered the knife to stab him. Higgins drew his gun and shot Zion nine times. Dash-cam video shows Zion running a few feet before collapsing and Higgins firing nine more shots as Zion lay on the ground.
The deputy walked away briefly before turning back, breaking into a short run and then stomping on Zion’s head, fracturing his skull. He smashed his foot onto the man’s head twice more before retreating to help Lopez, according to dash-cam video and official accounts of the incident.
Higgins won the Sheriff’s Department Medal of Valor in 2014 for his actions that night, and he later was promoted to sergeant. The Sheriff’s Department said his response was “reasonable and justified” and did not file criminal charges against Higgins.
In October 2015, U.S. District Judge James V. Selna granted the county’s motion for summary judgment in the case, and Zion’s mother, Kimberly Zion, appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The panel sent the case back to the lower court in 2017 after deciding a jury should determine whether the second round of shots and the head-stomping constituted excessive force.
The 9th Circuit concluded in its decision that “a jury could reasonably find that Higgins knew or easily could have determined that he had already rendered Zion harmless.”
“If so, a reasonable jury could also conclude that Higgins was acting out of anger or emotion rather than any legitimate law enforcement purpose,” Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the opinion.
Stormer said Kimberly Zion is “doing as well as can be expected as someone who lost her only son, with whom she was extremely close.”