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Defense attorney Michael Schwartz stood beneath the clock in courtroom 2F at the Larson Justice Center in Indio on Wednesday, Dec. 6, and during his opening statement in the voluntary manslaughter trial of a former Los Angeles Police Department officer directed the jurors’ attention to the second hand on the dial.

“Count three seconds,” said the attorney for Salvador Alejandro Sanchez, who was off duty and not in uniform on June 14, 2019, when he responded to an unprovoked blindside punch by Kenneth French with a volley of 10 shots that killed French and wounded parents Russell and Paola in the Costco in Corona. “That’s how much time my client had after being punched so hard that his head hit the concrete with a thump.

“That’s how much time he had (to assess) where the threat was, who the threat was and whether there was still a threat,” Schwartz said. “One … two … three.”

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No one is disputing that Sanchez was responsible for the gunfire in the crowded deli. At issue is whether Sanchez reacted appropriately to the attack as he was being handed a sausage sample. Sanchez was holding his 22-month-old son when he was slugged by French, who a relative has described as a “gentle giant.”

A witness is expected to testify that in the seconds after the punch, French had a “face of anger” and was in “a ready-to-fight posture,” Schwartz said.

Body-worn camera video from Corona police played Wednesday showed Sanchez lying on the floor saying, “I see a blast and I feel my head get knocked down. I thought I was shot.”

But French was not armed.

A doctor is expected to testify that Sanchez suffered a concussion.

Sanchez is also charged with two counts of assault with a firearm causing great bodily injury for the wounds to the parents. Schwartz told jurors that Sanchez had “tunnel vision” focusing on French and that he didn’t see the parents rushing to protect and push away their son.

Deputy Attorney General Mike Murphy, the prosecutor, told jurors that Sanchez panicked and failed to realize that he was no longer threatened after the punch.

“This case is about a deadly overreaction,” Murphy said. “It was extremely reckless, unreasonable and unlawful. A witness will tell you it’s the quickest draw he had ever seen.”

Kenneth French, left, was killed and his parents, Paola and Russell, were wounded in a shooting at the Costco in Corona in 2019 by an off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officer in 2019. The voluntary manslaughter trial for Salvador Alejandro Sanchez began on Dec. 6, 2023, in Indio. The Frenches are shown in a photo displayed at a news conference held by attorney Dale K. Galipo. (Photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Kenneth French, left, was killed and his parents, Paola and Russell French, were wounded in a shooting at the Costco in Corona in 2019 by an off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officer. (Photo Courtesy of French Family)

Sanchez, 33, has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges. He is not in custody after posting bail. He faces 33 years in prison if convicted of all charges, Murphy said.

During a morning break, Sanchez hugged supporters outside the courtroom.

While the attorneys told jurors what they should expect to hear during the trial, there is information they will not learn from the testimony, however.

Daniel Franc, a doctor with the Los Angeles Brain Science Project, examined Sanchez in 2021 and, after reading reports and witness statements, concluded Sanchez’s actions in the deli were reasonable in light of the head injury he suffered.

“His perception of the person standing before him holding a gun is a reasonable split-second interpretation for an individual who had concussion/traumatic brain injury immediately prior to such perceptions,” Franc wrote in his report to the defense team. “Based on the available information and the effects of the concussion/mild traumatic brain injury, he made the reasonable decision as any other reasonable person in his specific circumstances, to use defense force to protect himself, his child and other members of the public.

“Mr. Sanchez has recollections of the moments subsequent to his head trauma that are not consistent with aspects of the factual record,” Franc continued. “Corrupted memory and recall are expected after head injury due to temporary dysfunction of memory.”

But after a series of motions on both sides, jurors will hear testimony from Franc only on the effects of concussions and that Sanchez suffered one. Franc will not be allowed by the judge to testify about the reasonableness of Sanchez’s actions, Schwartz said in an interview.

Additionally, Russell French testified during the preliminary hearing that his son did not receive extensive mental-health treatment. But the number of medical records that Schwartz subpoenaed — and was largely denied — suggest otherwise, Schwartz said. Jurors will be told only that French has received mental-health treatment, Schwartz said.

The state Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting the case after Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin declined to prosecute Sanchez. Attorney General Rob Bonta concluded that Sanchez’s action as a police officer — shooting Kenneth French after French struck Sanchez — was not reasonable.

That night, Sanchez, French, 32, and his parents, Russell and Paola French, were standing in line for sausage samples in the deli of the Costco warehouse store on McKinley Street. Kenneth, who didn’t talk, lived with his parents in the Lake Hills area near Corona.

Suddenly and unprovoked, Kenneth French slugged Sanchez in the back of his head as Sanchez held his young son. Sanchez fell and struck his head on the floor. He told investigators that he thought he saw a “flash of light,” believed he had been shot and saw Sanchez, who was determined to be unarmed, holding a gun. A witness said he saw French facing Sanchez with clenched fists.

In under four seconds, Sanchez pulled out his service revolver and began firing, despite Paola French shouting “Don’t shoot!” Sanchez unleashed 10 shots, seriously wounding French’s parents and killing their son.

A single, distant security camera recorded a short, blurry video that captured a portion of the confrontation. The tape did little to clarify the events.

Sanchez identified himself as an officer to the arriving police, and he was not arrested. He was taken to Corona Regional Medical Center for treatment.

Hestrin handed the case off to the county grand jury, which, he explained, could subpoena witnesses who would not talk to his investigators: “It was the type of case where the community needs to weigh in and draw the lines.”

Hestrin said he could have essentially overruled the grand jury. He denied he withheld prosecution to maintain favor with law enforcement.

The Los Angeles Police Department fired Sanchez because officials determined that the shooting was not within policy.

In October 2021, a federal jury awarded the Frenches $17 million after they filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Sanchez and the LAPD.

The case is being heard in Indio because that was the only county courthouse where a courtroom was available for an anticipated monthlong trial, Schwartz said.

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