3 Northern California law enforcement officers charged in death of man held facedown on the ground

OAKLAND, California — Three Northern California law enforcement officers have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a man pinned face down during a 2021 incident that drew comparisons to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The charges against James Fisher, Cameron Leahy and Eric McKinley were announced Thursday by Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price.

The charges were filed just before the statute of limitations was set to expire and marked a reversal of a decision by a previous prosecutor that cleared the officers of wrongdoing.

Mario Gonzalez, 26, died April 19, 2021, in the city of Alameda. McKinley, Fisher and Leahy were all Alameda police officers at the time. McKinley and Leahy still work for that department, but Fisher is now a Contra Costa County sheriff’s deputy.

The officers confronted Gonzalez after receiving 911 calls reporting that he appeared disoriented or intoxicated. According to the police video, he resisted the handcuffs and was pinned to the ground for several minutes before falling unconscious.

The provincial coroner’s autopsy report listed the cause of death as “toxic effects of methamphetamine,” with contributing factors of “physiological stress from altercation and restraint,” morbid obesity and alcoholism. Then-District Attorney Nancy O’Malley subsequently ruled that the officers’ actions were reasonable.

A second, independent autopsy, conducted at the request of Gonzalez’s family attorneys, found that he died of “asphyxia by force.” The district attorney’s office noted the second autopsy and announced the charges of involuntary manslaughter.

Defense attorneys denounced the charges as politically motivated, noting that an effort to oust Price has gathered enough signatures to force a recall election this year.

Fisher’s attorney, Michael Rains, said the charges are a “desperate attempt to improve her chances of staying in office,” Bay Area News Group reported.

The district attorney waited “until the eleventh hour” for the statute of limitations to expire just days after it was confirmed she would face a recall, said attorney Alison Berry Wilkinson, who represented the three officers in previous investigations and now Leahy represents, said in an email to The Associated Press.

“There is no new evidence,” wrote Berry Wilkinson. “This is blatant political persecution.”

Berry Wilkinson said the officers’ actions were reasonable, necessary and lawful, and that the death was due to drug poisoning.

“We are confident that a jury will see through this charade and exonerate the officers, just as the two previous independent investigations did,” he said.

An attorney for McKinley could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

Price said she was “disconnected” from the case review, which was conducted by her office’s Public Accountability Unit.

Last year, Alameda settled two lawsuits over Gonzalez’s death. The city agreed to pay $11 million to his young son and $350,000 to his mother.

“An injustice has been righted,” Adante Pointer, the lawyer for Gonzalez’s mother, told the news group.