Courts & Crime

Ex-Fresno cop cleared of 'assault' charges, faces more woe

A jury on Monday cleared a former Fresno police officer who was accused of using excessive force to subdue rowdy partygoers.

But Marcus Tafoya's troubles are far from over -- he is a defendant in an upcoming federal civil rights trial involving some of the same people he clashed with at the March 2005 party in southeast Fresno for a Marine returning from Iraq.

Experts say the legal standard for a civil conviction is much lower, and jurors in the federal case likely will hear evidence of prior excessive-force complaints against Tafoya that weren't allowed in his criminal trial. The city already has settled with two of the partygoers for $1.6 million.

With two dozen supporters behind him in the courtroom Monday, Tafoya, 39, displayed no reaction as a Fresno County Superior Court jury of seven women and five men acquitted him on five counts of felony assault by a public officer and a burglary charge related to the party.

The jury also cleared him of felony assault by a public officer involving two other incidents in 2005. Jurors, however, were unable to agree on an assault charge involving a man who attended a Hmong New Year's party in downtown Fresno in December 2004. Because the jury's vote -- 9-3 in favor of conviction -- wasn't unanimous, Tafoya can be retried on the charge.

Once the final verdict was read, Tafoya's wife, Tracy, sitting on the edge of her seat in the front row of the packed gallery, wiped away a tear.

Afterward, the Tafoyas, and their family and friends, many of them Fresno police officers, left the courtroom without commenting.

The jury also slipped out of the courthouse without talking to reporters.

Attorney E. Marshall Hodgkins, who represented Tafoya, said the jury vindicated his client. "This is earth-shattering," Hodgkins said.

"This is the first time he doesn't have to deal with a nightmare that has haunted him more than 2 1/2 years."

Tafoya and his wife, also a Fresno police officer, had a baby 14 weeks ago, Hodgkins said. They need time to think about their future, which could include asking for his job back, Hodgkins said.

Tafoya was fired in 2007 after the District Attorney's Office targeted him for prosecution. Police Chief Jerry Dyer said Monday that he fired Tafoya based on a police internal investigation -- not the District Attorney's investigation.

"I believe those facts support my decision to terminate him then, and that opinion has not changed," Dyer said.

Outside court, Lupe Martinez, who testified that Tafoya roughed her up at her brother's homecoming party from Iraq, expressed displeasure with the outcome. "I just can't believe that an officer can just go into someone's home and violate them," she said.

Tafoya spent 10 years in the Fresno Police Department as a patrol officer, a night detective and a member of an elite squad that targeted gang members, drug dealers and other violent criminals.

Jurors, however, weren't told that during that 10-year span, he fatally shot four suspects. The panel also didn't know about the $1.6 million settlement.

The jury deliberated for 22 hours over six days.

The verdicts ended eight weeks of conflicting testimony that pitted officers in the Fresno Police Department against each other, and prompted the prosecution to accuse Tafoya and his friends in the Police Department of trying to intimidate witnesses.

Read the full story at the Fresno Bee.