• Cruz Reynoso tells law students why he stepped back into the fray Monday, November 2, 2009

    DAVIS, Calif.–At age 78, former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso might be forgiven if he had decided to slow down.

    But speaking to UC Davis students at an event organized by La Raza Law Students Association, Reynoso said Monday night that people who understand how the system works have an obligation to help others who lack political power.

    Reynoso noted that he has retired a few times. But rather than remain on his ranch in rural Sacramento County, Reynoso is chairing a citizen’s commission investigating the officer-involved shooting death of Luis Gutierrez, a 26-year farm worker, in the farm town of Woodland outside Sacramento.

    “Those of us who do have a little bit of education and have a little bit of knowledge about how government works have a duty to try to do what we can to ameliorate the situation,” Reynoso told a gathering of about 30 people in the basement of King Hall.

    Cruz Reynoso

    Reynoso’s nine-member commission includes a former police officer, a former prosecutor, a minister and others. Reynoso said he expects the commission will have its first meeting after Jan. 1.

    The commission lacks subpoena power. But Reynoso said attorneys representing Gutierrez’s family in potential civil suits could help determine what took place. Reynoso added that since the commission was publicly announced, witnesses who had not previously come forward have confided their accounts of the shooting.

    Reynoso recounted numerous instances during his half-century as a lawyer and civil rights advocate in which he investigated or represented victims of police misconduct and hate crimes. He had been a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission during Bill Clinton’s and Geoge W. Bush’s administrations. He said he does not know whether or not law enforcement officers are better now than in past decades. But he said “police should be a lot better by now with all the education and resources.”

    Gutierrez had been walking home at about 2 p.m. on April 30 from the Department of Motor Vehicles after passing his driver’s license test when three undercover gang-suppression officers driving in an unmarked car stopped him, Yolo County authorities have said.

    Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto has said Gutierrez ran from the deputies, and then turned and lunged with a 4-inch folding knife. Deputies fired a half dozen shots, killing him. Authorities since have determined that Gutierrez was not a gang member and had no criminal record.

    Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig requested that the FBI review the shooting. The FBI in Sacramento will forward its findings to the Justice Department in Washington by the end of the year, said FBI special agent Steve Dupre, the Sacramento office’s spokesman. The Justice Department in Washington will “decide whether a full field investigation is warranted,” Dupre said Monday.

    Reynoso grew up as one of 11 children in Brea, Calif., and graduated from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall law school in 1958. Reynoso was a leading civil rights attorney early in his career, and served as director of California Rural Legal Assistance. Then Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him the California Court of Appeal in 1976, and to the California Supreme Court in 1982.

    He was one of three Brown-appointed justices ousted in a 1986 election—the first time a sitting California high court justice lost such an election. Crime victims angry about rulings striking down death sentences led the public campaign against the court, while Brown’s successor, Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, and Deukmejian’s political allies in business and industry led the effort to fund the campaign. Reynoso taught at UCLA School of Law after leaving the court. He joined the UC Davis School of Law in 2001 and retired in 2006. President Clinton awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

    –Dan Morain

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