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By Yomi S. Wronge
Mercury News via Knight Ridder

For the first time in California history, a Department of Justice drug agent will go on trial this week in San Jose for killing someone in the line of duty -- a case that could pit local police against state narcotics agents.

State Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement agent Michael Walker is charged with voluntary manslaughter in the mistaken-identity death of Rodolfo ``Rudy'' Cardenas, whom Walker shot in the back during a botched pursuit in February 2004.

Walker, a former Watsonville patrolman, claims self-defense. He said he thought Cardenas had a gun. The father of five was unarmed. Police initially said they found no weapons on the body, but a forensic investigator later said a knife had been found in the man's pants pocket.

Now a jury must decide whether Walker had good reason to fear that Cardenas was dangerous, that in the confusing, adrenaline-charged minutes before the fatal shooting in a downtown San Jose alley, it was kill or be killed.

But the trial will not focus on Walker alone. It will provide a rare glimpse into the underside of police work, the planning and execution of delicate operations and the ramifications of poor communication between agencies.

The controversial case revolves around three areas of law enforcement -- parole, state narcotics and San Jose police -- and the role each agency played in the tragic event.

Police were critical of state narcotics agents during a grand jury hearing and are expected to give similar testimony during the trial.

The case is highly unusual in another way: Not since the 1970s has an officer been charged in Santa Clara County for killing in the line of duty. That case, involving the police shooting of an unarmed man who was running away, resulted in acquittal.

``We have in our county squeaky-clean police departments . . . we're used to excellent training and high professionalism, so this is a shock to the community that even a neighboring police agency has an allegation like this,'' said Chief Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu.

Walker was indicted after a grand jury inquest -- held in rare public forum last summer -- during which he testified that he thought the man he was chasing was fugitive parolee David Gonzales, who was wanted on a drug violation and was considered dangerous.

``I fired just as soon as I perceived an imminent threat,'' Walker said at the time.

If convicted, the 34-year-old former officer could face up to 10 years in state prison with an enhancement for the use of a firearm.

Cardenas' family wants Walker held accountable.

``It affects our entire community. What happened didn't just happen to my dad,'' said Regina Cardenas, 27.

The family and their supporters have spent the last year advocating for justice for the slain man. They've organized marches, handed out fliers at community events and launched a Web site to promote their cause.

Walker, meanwhile, has been low-key since being placed on routine administrative leave in August 2004. He's been fully supported by his superiors at the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, some of whom will be called to testify about the pursuit and conflicting statements Walker allegedly made following the shooting.

Jury selection could conclude today, and opening statements could begin as soon as Thursday.

Although lawyers are being mum about strategy -- citing pre-trial publicity -- motions argued in court recently offer clues to how the trial will play out.

As he did during the grand jury hearing, Deputy District Attorney Lane Liroff will try to cite a series of alleged missteps on the part of drug agents that led to Cardenas' death.

After getting only a glimpse of a photograph of the man they were seeking, state agents mistook Cardenas for their target and gave chase. During the high-speed pursuit, which Liroff called ``reckless,'' they lost contact with local police. They became baffled by unfamiliar streets and alleys in downtown San Jose.

They cornered Cardenas in an alley near the intersection of Fourth and St. James streets, where Cardenas ditched his van and fled on foot. Walker claims that as Cardenas was running away, he turned toward the agent and revealed what looked to be a weapon.

Walker fired into the man's back. Witnesses said Cardenas pleaded for mercy.

``Every step demanding sober caution . . . was missed,'' Liroff said during the grand jury hearing, laying blame equally on parole agents and Department of Justice officials who he said failed to properly plan the operation.

During preliminary motions, defense attorney Craig Brown failed to convince Superior Court Judge Rene Navarro, who will preside over the six week trial, that the actions of other agents were irrelevant to the case. He accused Liroff of trying to embarrass the agencies.

Navarro also ruled that the jury will not hear evidence of a defense theory that Cardenas supposedly had a suicide-by-cop fantasy.

But Brown was successful in getting admitted into evidence the background of the victim, described as a low-level drug dealer and gang member who was high on methamphetamine when he tried to outrun Walker.

Liroff accused the defense of trying to deflect blame off Walker by portraying Cardenas in a bad light.

``This is all about making the victim worthwhile to kill,'' the prosecutor said during a sometimes-heated court hearing last week.

But Brown countered there were compelling reasons for Cardenas, an ex-con, to run from police and do whatever he could to avoid going back to jail ``including frightening off his pursuer by pretending to have a weapon.''

Cardenas' killing came on the heels of another controversial police shooting.

A year earlier, in July 2003, a San Jose officer shot a Vietnamese woman, Bich Cau Thi Tran, as she stood in her kitchen with an Asian vegetable peeler in her hand. The officer claimed he feared the hysterical Tran, who had a history of psychiatric problems and had been prescribed medication. Community outrage ensued. An open grand jury hearing was held. The officer was not charged, but the family has filed a civil suit against the officer.

San Jose Mercury News
 
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