In December 2016, a young black man named Mario Woods was shot to death by police officers in San Francisco. A coroner’s report later showed that he suffered 20 bullet wounds, including six in the back. The shooting, captured on video, was one of a series of recent police killings of unarmed men of color that have sparked protests across the country.
Adante Pointer ’03 is on the front lines of fighting for justice for Woods and other victims. An attorney in Oakland, Calif., he’s representing Woods’ mother, Gwendolyn, in a federal wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit against the city of San Francisco. In the past, he’s filed suits on behalf of the families of Oscar Grant, killed by BART police in 2009, and Alex Nieto, killed by San Francisco officers in 2014. That doesn’t include the victims whose deaths didn’t make headlines.
“I’m shepherding the grieving families through a process to get justice when they’ve been denied it through the criminal process and disciplinary process for officers,” Pointer says. “The ability to act as a shield and sword to those who are defenseless is rewarding.”
Pointer has wanted to be a lawyer since he was growing up in West Oakland. He says he and his friends received unfair treatment from police, and a group of rogue officers known as the “Riders” terrorized his community (his future employer, John Burris, later won a $10.5 million settlement and federal consent decree over the scandal). Such abuse didn’t happen to his classmates at the private schools he attended on scholarship. “I could see how their lives were very different, and I wanted to make myself a representative for the people from my community to even the odds, if not the score,” he says.
Pointer went to San Diego State for college, then transferred to UC Berkeley, where he received a political science degree in 1999. He enrolled at UC Hastings in 2000 and participated in the Legal Education Opportunity Program. As the primary caregiver for his child, Pointer worked multiple jobs during law school, including as an aide to Congresswoman Barbara Lee. He was also president of the Black Law Student Association.
“UC Hastings teaches you how to really use the law to do battle. It produces hard-nosed, witty attorneys who are ready and willing to engage in the clash of ideas,” he says.
After a stint doing community organizing work for the city of Oakland, Pointer joined the law firm of civil rights attorney John L. Burris in 2005. He litigated criminal defense and civil cases, including personal injury suits, and his clients included NBA and NFL players.
A pivotal case came in 2007, when he helped secure a $6 million jury verdict against the city of Oakland. It was Pointer’s first federal civil-rights case to go to trial, and he felt nervous going up against seasoned attorneys. He and a colleague represented a couple that said police had barged into their home and falsely arrested them on charges that they had a rifle. Pointer felt dazed when the verdict went his way.
“It was surreal. It was an against-all-odds scenario,” he says. “That case symbolized my coming of age in the legal profession. It symbolized my passion for representing my community and getting it the justice it deserves and has been denied for far too long.”
Two years later, the news that police had fatally shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant, an unarmed train passenger and father, shook the country. The event was memorialized in the film Fruitvale Station. In 2011, Pointer and Burris negotiated a $1.5 million settlement (projected to be worth $5.1 million with accrued interest) with BART on behalf of Grant’s daughter, who was 4 years old when he died.
In August 2014, Pointer filed a lawsuit on behalf of the parents of Alex Nieto, a 28-year-old Mexican American who was shot to death by police in his neighborhood, inciting protests in San Francisco. Officers claimed that he had pointed a Taser at them, which they mistook for a gun, an assertion fiercely debated at trial. In March 2016, jurors sided with the officers.
“We didn’t get the result we wanted. But the Nietos, who lost their son far too early and were met with a shroud of secrecy and misinformation, were pleased that the facts got out,” Pointer says.
There is no shortage of demand for Pointer’s services. Recently, he took on the cases of Luis Pat Gonora, a homeless Mexican immigrant in San Francisco, and Anthony Nunez, a suicidal teenager in San Jose, both killed by police earlier this year. The Mario Woods case is also progressing, with a trial scheduled for next fall.
“There are more deserving cases than time in the day,” Pointer says. “If you’re going to abuse your authority and no one’s going to hold you responsible, I will.”