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A judge on Friday cleared a former Modesto police officer in the fatal shooting of Trevor Seever.
Joseph Lamantia had been charged with voluntary manslaughter after the unarmed Seever, 29, was shot outside a Woodland Avenue church in December 2020.
Judge Carrie Stephens issued the ruling after a preliminary hearing in Stanislaus Superior Court. She said Lamantia had a reasonable fear for his safety because Seever’s family had called 911 to report that he had purchased a gun. Officers also were aware of past social media posts where Seever said he wanted to kill police.
“The overwhelming evidence presented shows that the situation was stressful, intense and rapidly evolving,” Stephens said, reading aloud from the bench.
Lamantia did not visibly react to the ruling as he sat at the defense table in a suit and tie. He already was free on bail before the preliminary hearing, which determines whether a defendant should go to trial. He was fired from his police job in March 2021.
Throughout Friday’s session, several members of the Seever family and friends listened intently to the judge read an account of the events and then her decision. Trevor Seever’s mother, Darlene Ruiz, cried softly during some sections, including a description of her son’s fatal injuries and when the decision was announced.
The family said earlier that Seever was in a mental health crisis but did not pose a threat that day. In April, the city agreed to pay $7.5 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit by the family.
Shooting helped bring about police oversight
Seever’s death helped spur the creation in May of a new process for monitoring Modesto police. It includes a law firm that assesses how the department deals with officer-involved shootings and other “critical incidents.” It is guided by a volunteer Community Police Review Board.
The effort also seeks to boost the number of mental health professionals responding to people at risk.
Seever was shot Dec. 29, 2020, on the grounds of the Church of the Brethren. Lamantia was the first officer on the scene and feared he would be ambushed, Internal Affairs Sgt. James Reeves testified.
The officer’s body camera video shows him get out of his patrol car with his gun drawn and run around a corner toward an alcove. Lamantia told Reeves he then saw Seever running away from him.
The video shows Lamantia twice yelling, “Get on the ground,” then firing four shots at Seever. Lamantia believed Seever still was trying to retrieve a firearm and yelled at him, “Show me your hands,” according to his statements to the investigator. Seever’s right hand went down and Lamantia fired three more rounds, the video shows.
Investigators said Seever was shot in his back, chest and abdomen. He died of blood loss at a hospital.
Prosecution: Other officers did not shoot at Seever
A brief filed by the prosecution in June said other officers did not fire at Seever even though they had received the same warning as Lamantia.
“Officer Lamantia never saw Trevor’s hands, nor did he ever see Trevor with a weapon or make any movement toward Officer Lamantia,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Richard Mury wrote.
Seever’s death led to frequent protests before the Modesto City Council, calling for Lamantia to be fired and prosecuted. Seever’s mother has been active in creating the police oversight board under the Forward Together initiative.
Stephens on Friday acknowledged the family’s loss in her decision not to put Lamantia on trial.
“This ruling is not meant to minimize the pain that you have undoubtedly suffered,” she said. “I have endeavored to follow the law even though I recognize it is hard to accept.”
This story was originally published July 21, 2023, 10:22 AM.