Sean Emery The Orange County Register
ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — A jury awarded $360,000 on Tuesday to the mother of a knife-wielding man who was shot and repeatedly stomped in the head by an Orange County sheriff’s deputy, who later was awarded the department’s medal of valor for his role in the deadly encounter.
The federal jury found that Deputy Michael Higgins used “non-lethal excessive force” against 21-year-old Connor Zion, moments after Zion stabbed another deputy in the arm.
The verdict indicates that jurors believed an initial volley of nine bullets fired by Higgins, which fatally wounded Zion, were justified, an attorney for the family said. The jurors determined a second volley of nine shots fired by Higgins, as well as the deputy stomping on a dying Zion’s head, constituted excessive force, the attorney said.
Attorney Dan Stormer, who represented the Zion family, described the verdict as a condemnation of Higgins’ conduct, as well as “justice for Connor.”
“It is a statement that citizens of this county will no longer put up with unconstitutional behavior by law enforcement,” Stormer said.
Daniel Spradlin, one of the attorneys who represented the Orange County Sheriff’s Department during the federal excessive force trial, noted that the entire encounter between Higgins and Zion took less than 23 seconds.
“He believed his partner was dying and he had to get control of the situation as soon as possible,” the attorney said of Higgins.
A spokesperson for the sheriff’s department declined to comment Tuesday.
Deputies in September 2013 were called to a Laguna Niguel condominium after Zion, who had a history of mental illness and seizures, cut a roommate and his mother with a 12-inch serrated kitchen knife.
Zion, yelling “I’ll kill you,” attacked Deputy Juan Lopez, the first law enforcement officer to arrive on the scene. Lopez was stabbed twice in the arm, fell to the ground, then kicked at Zion to keep him away.
Video captured Higgins firing nine times from about 15 feet away as Zion ran back toward the condominium.
As Zion was on the ground, still stirring, the video showed Higgins walking up and firing another nine bullets into Zion from about four feet away. Higgins then stomped on Zion’s head, the video shows, walked away, returned and stomped him on the head again, walked away, and returned for a third time to stomp on Zion.
Attorneys for Zion described the second volley of gunshots as being “execution style.” The attorneys for the sheriff’s department countered that Higgins fired the second round because it was possible Zion was playing possum.
In 2014, Higgins was awarded the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s medal of valor for his actions during the confrontation with Zion.
Investigators with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, which routinely reviews shootings involving law enforcement, determined that Higgins’ actions were “reasonable and justified.”
In a 2014 interview with a Register reporter, Higgins said the scene reminded him of a horror movie, describing it as surreal.
Lopez, who was awarded a Purple Heart medal from the department for the wounds he sustained in the knife attack, described Zion stabbing him after jumping out from a hiding place, waving a knife over his head.
©2019 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)