By Lisa Keller of Hadsell Stormer & Renick LLP posted in police misconduct on Thursday, January 24, 2019.
A federal jury unanimously found that Orange County sheriff’s deputy Michael Higgins used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution when he shot and stomped the head of Connor Zion after he no longer posed a threat. The jury awarded Connor’s mother Kimberly Zion $360,000 for her son’s pre-death pain and suffering.
The incident occurred in September 2013 at a Laguna Niguel apartment complex where Connor lived. Connor, a professional ballroom dancer, suffered from mental illness – including nocturnal epilepsy and seizures. On September 24, 2013, he was experiencing a mental health crisis and his mother and roommate called police for help.
Connor got into an altercation with the first deputy to arrive. When the second deputy, Higgins, arrived, he shot at Connor 9 times, wounding him with 6 bullets, at which point Connor collapsed on the ground. As Connor was lying on the ground unarmed, seriously injured and barely moving, Higgins stood over his body and fired 9 more shots at point blank range. He began walking away but turned back to Connor, ran at him and stomped on his head. He then ran at Connor two more times and stomped on his head each time. The head stomps fractured Connor’s skull in two places. He died on the scene.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office found that Higgins actions were “reasonable and justified” and declined to file criminal charges against him. He was, instead, awarded a Sheriff’s Department Medal of Valor. In 2014 Kimberly Zion filed suit claiming negligence and excessive force. The case finally went to trial in January 2019. HSR attorneys Cindy Panuco, Brian Olney and Dan Stormer represented Ms. Zion at the 9 day trial that resulted in the jury finding that Higgins used excessive force in the shooting and killing of Connor.
Jurors had determined that the first shots Higgins fired were justified, but the second set (when Connor was already down on the ground) and the head stomping constituted excessive force. “The police are not trained to stomp victims into unconsciousness, especially after they’ve been shot 13 times.” Brian Olney said, calling it “a heinous, vicious, brutal act.”
According to Dan Stormer, it was an act of “sheer brutality.” Stormer said, “The jury was willing to speak out and give a significant award for the pain and suffering that he went through prior to his death.” He added, “The value of the jury’s award related not only to the pain he suffered, but also the way the pain was inflicted. Higgins knew Connor was incapacitated, knew he wasn’t a threat and still viciously stomped on him.”
“The jury’s verdict finally brings long overdue justice for Connor and sends a message that the citizens of Orange County, and across the country will not accept police brutality,” concluded Cindy Pánuco.