The family of an Orange County man head-stomped and shot to death by a sheriff's deputy after he left three people with stabbing wounds, including a deputy, has been awarded $360,000, their attorney told KTLA Wednesday.
The settlement comes more than five years after the fatal confrontation in Laguna Niguel.
While the initial shots fired by O.C. Sheriff's Deputy Michael Higgins were deemed legally justified, a jury has ruled some of his later actions against the suspect were not.
On the night of Sept. 24, 2013, deputies were called to a home in the 200 block of Chandon about a disturbance, authorities said. Connor Zion, 21, allegedly came out running with a knife and attacked a deputy — stabbing him repeatedly — and left another man and woman with stabbing wounds.
Zion's family's attorney, Dan Stormer, said the young man was having a psychotic episode at the time. He suffered from seizures after recently being diagnosed with nocturnal epilepsy.
After witnessing Zion injure a fellow officer, Higgins then opened fire on him. He shot Zion nine times.
That first round of shots were considered legally justified since Zion posed a credible threat after committing multiple stabbings, as the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in November 2017, while also releasing video of the incident.
"When police confront a suspect who poses an immediate threat, they may use deadly force against him,"Judge Alex Kozinski wrote. "But they must stop using deadly force when the suspect no longer poses a threat."
So Higgins's later actions against the suspect were initially less clear and the decision was left to a jury.
Police footage released by the federal court shows Higgins approached Zion once he fell to the ground after being shot. From a distance of about four feet, Higgins fired nine more shots.
"While Zion was still moving on the ground in fetal position, Higgins stomped on Zion’s head three times," Kozinski wrote.
"In the video, Zion appears to have been wounded and is making no threatening gestures," the judge wrote.
A jury has since decided that Higgins used excessive force, allowing Zion's family to gain the $360,000 settlement.
But the deputy had already gone on to win the department's Medal of Valor in 2014 for those same actions, according to the Orange County Register.
"I think that is an insult to the citizens of Orange County," Dan Stormer, the attorney for Zion's family, told KTLA of the honor.
"The jury, I believe, particularly found the head stomps heinous," Stormer said. "He fractured his skull in two separate places."
"It was a moment of pure brutality," he said.
The attorney also said the O.C. Sheriff's Department initially tried to argue that Higgins needed to head-stomp Zion in order to render him unconscious and go assist his wounded fellow officer.
The department has not responded to a request for comment from KTLA.
According to Stormer, testimony at trial had indicated that Zion left his mother with stabbing wounds after she tried taking a knife out of his hand. Other testimony indicated his housemate was stabbed when they got into a "wrestling match" while he was still armed, Stormer said.
He also said Zion was a nationally ranked professional dancer who had begun having mental health struggles in recent months.