SAN JOSE -- Naked and unarmed, truck driver Steve Salinas refused orders by San Jose police to get down on the floor. Moments later, he was dead.

What happened to Salinas that warm May night six years ago -- and whether it was justified -- is the subject of a civil trial now unfolding in San Jose's federal courthouse.

Salinas' children claim their father's constitutional rights were violated when, in a show of excessive force, a police officer zapped Salinas with a Taser -- 10 times in 93 seconds. At least six of those jolts came after he had fallen to the floor and was being grabbed by three other police officers.

The family has sued the city of San Jose and all four cops for $20 million.

"He shouldn't have been tased at all," said the family's attorney, Dale Galipo, "and he certainly shouldn't have been tased 10 times. They could have handled it differently."

But the police say Salinas, 47, weighed 260 pounds and had so much PCP in his system he was grunting unintelligibly in Room 119 of the Vagabond motel on North First Street. People who take PCP, or angel dust -- especially in extremely large doses like Salinas -- typically feel little if any pain and can become physically powerful and violent.

The city claims that the former officer who operated the Taser, Barry Chickayasu, had to stun Salinas repeatedly so the other cops could handcuff him.

"The Taser was the perfect tool," said Clifford Greenberg, senior deputy city attorney.

In contrast, Galipo said Salinas was flailing about only because he was dying from the repeated Taser jolts. He denied that the PCP made Salinas "combative or assaultive."

But Salinas' use of the drug is central to the city's defense.

"The PCP is very, very important," Greenberg said. "It caused him to react the way he did, and it's why police were unable to control him, and it was the cause of his death."

A glaring absence

The trial started Tuesday and is expected to last up to two weeks. One of the four officers, Jason Woodall, began testifying late Wednesday afternoon. About two years after Salinas died, Woodall was convicted of felony grand theft for timecard fraud and resigned from the department, a fact Galipo will try to use to impeach him.

The former officer who fired the Taser, Chickayasu, was also expected to testify. Galipo said he didn't subpoena him because the defense said he would show up. However, Chickayasu has declined to attend his own trial -- a glaring absence Galipo is allowed to point out to the jury of five men and three women.

The jury must decide, based on a preponderance of the evidence, whether to hold any, all or none of the plaintiffs liable.

Under San Jose Police Department policy, officers are to avoid multiple Taser "applications," if possible. Officers are also warned that prolonged use of a Taser can lead to death and that drug users are at higher risk of adverse medical reactions. Taser International had been named in the lawsuit, but the company argued to Judge Edward J. Davila that it wasn't liable for Salinas' death because it adequately warned police of the risks of using the device.

But Greenberg said the coroner will testify that the Taser did not kill Salinas. The Santa Clara County coroner's office concluded that Salinas -- who was under the influence of a toxic, if not lethal, dose of PCP and had heart disease -- died of cardiopulmonary arrest during a violent physical struggle. The medical examiner noted that Taser use was an "other significant condition," but did not conclude that it contributed to his death.

But Galipo said he will present evidence that the Taser was a factor in Salinas' death. He also told the jury that an expert on the use of force would testify that police went too far. At one point, Galipo seemed to suggest that the cops could have used pepper spray or certain baton moves to handcuff Salinas.

'Killer joint'

Tuesday, one of the four officers -- retired Sgt. Mike McLaren -- took the stand and described the May 25, 2007, confrontation. The call went out on the radio early in the evening after a clerk erroneously reported that a woman had fallen out of a window. The clerk's report was prompted by a man staying at the motel, Herbert Howard, who had heard strange noises coming from the ground-floor room and a glass window shatter.

The first to arrive, McLaren knocked on the door several times before Salinas' girlfriend would open up. She told the officer in a slurred voice that everything was fine. But he yanked her out of the room and radioed in that Salinas appeared high on "KJ," street slang for Killer Joint, or PCP, and that he'd still need assistance. When Chickayasu arrived, McLaren mentioned that he thought Salinas would require use of a Taser. Then, during the struggle with Salinas, the other officers apparently urged Chickayasu to keep jolting the naked man.

Why did McLaren believe the Taser would be necessary, the city attorney asked, since Salinas had his back turned to them and wasn't holding a weapon -- or even raising his hands in a threatening gesture?

McLaren, who retired after 27 years on the force, said he knew from experience how difficult PCP users can be to arrest because, "It's like they feel no pain." Salinas was "slippery" with sweat, making him tough to grab, McLaren said, and he didn't even seem to truly understand that police were in the motel room. Years before, he'd grappled with a PCP user and had to have knee surgery as a result.

"When I saw that (he was on PCP)," McLaren said, "I perceived danger."

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.