The criminal case against two former San Rafael police officers took a tragic turn when one of the defense attorneys, Christopher J. Shea, died last week. He was 57.
Family, friends and colleagues expressed their distress and sorrow at the sudden loss of Shea, a seasoned criminal defense attorney who also spent more than a decade as a prosecutor in the Marin County District Attorney’s Office.
“Chris was an excellent attorney and a good, generous man,” defense attorney Douglas Horngrad wrote on the Pacific Sun’s website. “His untimely death is a terrible shock and tragedy.”
Another tribute mentioned that Shea was humble. Shea’s mother, Diane Shea, agreed, telling me in an email she didn’t think her son knew the extent of the love and respect so many people had for him.
“Chris was comfortable in his own skin, happiest in flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt,” Diane Shea said.
In addition to saddening his family and friends, Shea’s unexpected death will likely delay—or possibly restart—the police use of force case he was involved in.
Early last week, Shea appeared in Marin County criminal court for two days to represent ex-cop Daisy Mazariegos during a preliminary hearing, a proceeding which determines whether there is enough evidence for a case to go to trial.
Mazariegos and Brandon Nail, also a former officer, are charged with assault under color of authority and making false statements in a crime report for a July 2022 use of force incident. Both were terminated from the police department earlier this year.
Co-counsel Julia Fox, who is representing Nail, sat next to Shea during the proceedings. Fox told me that she noticed Shea loosened his tie while court was in session, something not usually done in that formal setting.
Courtroom spectators observed that Shea also unbuttoned the top button of his shirt and wore his sunglasses on top of his head while questioning a witness, leaving many now wondering whether the lawyer felt unwell. Still, Shea’s performance during the preliminary hearing was remarkable.
On the second day of the hearing, Shea made the surprise move of calling Mazariegos to testify. Several attorneys told me this is done only when a defense attorney believes the judge will find that their client should not be held to answer the charges. Shea had added incentive to convince the judge to send his client home—Mazariegos is pregnant and due on Oct. 19.
“It is very anomalous to have the defendants testify in a prelim,” Fox said. “Off the top of my head, I’ve only seen that happen maybe once before.”
Shea led his client through the details of the police use of force incident that began when Mazariegos contacted three men for drinking in public. Mazariegos indicated that she told the men to sit down to gain control.
“There were three of them and one of me,” Mazariegos said.
Under Shea’s questioning, Mazariegos established that one of the men, Julio Jimenez Lopez, stood to retrieve his identification. By then, Nail had arrived. The two officers instructed Jimenez Lopez to sit, but he soon stood again.
The officers grabbed Jimenez Lopez to handcuff him. Mazariegos claimed that Jimenez Lopez stiffened up and moved his arm, prompting Nail to trip the man and bring all three of them to the ground. During the encounter, Jiminez Lopez grabbed Nail’s vest, which held some of the officer’s equipment, including a baton and “OC spray,” also known as pepper spray, according to Mazariegos.
“I looked at Nail,” Mazariegos said. “His demeanor changed. He had a blank stare on his face.”
Nail then punched Jimenez Lopez in the nose with a closed fist. The use of force was consistent with her training because Jimenez Lopez was actively resisting, Mazariegos said.
The preliminary hearing ended before Assistant District Attorney Geoff Iida had the opportunity to cross examine Mazariegos.
But Iida had spent most of that day’s session, as well as the previous day, questioning prosecution witnesses, including Jimenez Lopez, DA investigator York Tsuruta and San Rafael police Cpl. Oscar O’Con, the supervising officer who approved the police reports submitted by Nail and Mazariegos.
During Iida’s examination of his own witnesses, it sometimes appeared that he was unaware of specific information that others in the courtroom knew. For example, when O’Con declared that the officers’ use of force was reasonable, the prosecutor failed to push back. Iida could have cited Police Chief David Spiller’s disciplinary letter to O’Con, who was suspended for four days due to his inadequate supervision of the incident.
The chief’s letter is one of numerous records recently released to the public from San Rafael’s independent investigation into the use of force incident and its aftermath. Other documents include the investigator’s interviews with Mazariegos and Nail, who were still officers at the time.
Marin County District Attorney Lori Frugoli declined to answer whether Iida has access to those interviews and other files from the independent investigation.
However, Fox, who is a former prosecutor, shed some light on the subject. While she believes that Iida may be legally able to review the records, the constitutional protection against self-incrimination would prevent him from using any information gleaned from Mazariegos’ and Nail’s statements.
“The officers were compelled to give their statements under the threat of insubordination,” Fox explained. “Those statements can’t be used against either officer because of the Fifth Amendment privilege.”
Another attorney suggested to me that it is safer for Iida to refrain from examining the investigative records altogether, to avoid inadvertently using the information and tainting the legal proceedings.
Iida’s questioning of Jimenez Lopez seemed more effective. Speaking through an interpreter, Jimenez Lopez explained that he was drinking a few beers after work with two friends when Mazariegos contacted them on Windward Way in the Canal neighborhood. Jimenez Lopez cried on the witness stand as he was forced to watch videos from the officers’ body-worn cameras of the beating.
During his testimony, he listed his numerous injuries resulting from the officers’ use of force, including a broken nose, concussion, a torn labrum in his shoulder requiring surgery and injuries to both knees. Jimenez Lopez said that he no longer plays soccer because of his injuries.
Theo Emison, Jimenez Lopez’s attorney in a civil lawsuit filed against San Rafael and the former officers, told me that his client was in fear for his life during the bloody beating.
“Both Julio and his wife were in tears after they left the hearing,” Emison said. “This has been an incredibly emotional experience for both of them. The hearing took Julio back into reality of the event, and he relived it in full.”
Unfortunately, Jimenez Lopez will likely be called on again to provide testimony—either at another preliminary hearing if the case has to start over or at trial.
The preliminary hearing is scheduled to continue on Oct. 10.