Calif. officer not charged in death of teenager
Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton, Times Staff Writers
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times
The Los Angeles police officer who fatally shot an unarmed 13-year-old at the end of a car chase earlier this year will not face criminal charges after a witness came forward and corroborated the officer's account of the controversial incident, prosecutors announced Monday.
The prosecutors' decision ends one major part of the investigation into the shooting. But the officer, Steve Garcia, still faces internal Police Department discipline and a suit by the dead teenager's family.
The decision not to bring charges depended heavily on testimony by a witness, identified in court papers as Miles Carthron. Prosecutors said Carthron was driving past 83rd Street and Western Avenue in South Los Angeles when the shooting occurred.
Prosecutors said Carthron largely supported the account given by Garcia, who said he fired 10 shots into Devin Brown's car after the boy put the vehicle in reverse and was about to hit him. Carthron also told investigators that Garcia appeared to be in danger when he fired and that the officer would have been struck by the car otherwise.
His account at least partly contradicts an elaborate re-creation of the incident performed by the LAPD earlier this year. The reconstruction found that Garcia was probably standing to the side of the car as shots were fired, not directly behind it.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's office determined that the department's scientific analysis was inconclusive because it could not determine exactly where Garcia was standing during the nearly two seconds in which the shooting unfolded.
"While Officer Garcia's exact location or movements at the time he fired his weapon cannot be precisely determined," Deputy Dist. Atty. Christian Gullon wrote in the report, "it is undisputed he was exposed, with a high degree of risk of being struck by the oncoming vehicle."
To convict Garcia, prosecutors would have to be able to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer had no justifiable fear that his life was in danger during the few seconds in which he decided to fire.
Given that high burden of proof, neither police officials nor community activists expressed surprise that prosecutors decided against filing criminal charges. Still, some LAPD critics faulted Cooley for not doing more to hold Garcia accountable.
"Every time Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley makes a decision like this, it amounts to a tacit endorsement of police abuse, shootings and violence," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, political commentator and South Los Angeles activist. "Chief [William J.] Bratton at least did see what a horrible, horrible shooting this was and changed the policy and procedures on shooting at cars so that there are enough checks to ensure it can't happen again."
Minister Tony Muhammad, head of Western states for the Nation of Islam, called the decision to not file charges "another deep dagger into the heart of this already strained community," which will cause "more mistrust of the cops."
A co-chairman of a South Los Angeles coalition formed after Devin's shooting, Muhammad immediately called for the Police Commission to decide that the shooting was outside of the department's policy on shootings. Bratton, he said, "absolutely needs to fire Garcia."
But Cooley's judgment won praise from police union President Bob Baker, who said it reflects the dangers officers face. He noted that nationwide, several officers are killed annually by moving vehicles.
"Officer Garcia made a split-second decision to protect himself," Baker said. "This event was a tragedy for both the family of Devin Brown and for the officer involved, but we are gratified that the district attorney's office resisted making a case that wasn't there."
Shortly after prosecutors announced their decision, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said that the LAPD would move forward with its process for determining whether Garcia should be punished.
The internal review, which will attempt to decide whether Garcia violated LAPD rules, may rely more heavily on the department's much-touted reconstruction of events, which was completed with the help of Hollywood special effects workers.
"We now have the responsibility to conduct our own review, and we are in the process of doing that," the mayor said. "My hope is that we do it as quick as possible so we get to just what happened here."
Neither Bratton nor other department officials would comment on the prosecutors' finding or on their conclusion that the reconstruction could not be used to determine precisely what happened.
But in a statement, the department said that its internal disciplinary process would be completed "as quickly as possible."
Brown's killing Feb. 6 sparked days of protests in South Los Angeles and prompted the LAPD to rewrite its polices governing when officers can fire at moving vehicles.
Prosecutors spent eight months reviewing evidence and interviewing those involved.
Garcia and his partner were on patrol about 3:49 a.m. when they saw a car run a red light. They tried to pull the car over but ended up in a short pursuit. A few minutes into the chase, the car, with Brown at the wheel, drove onto a sidewalk. Garcia got out of the cruiser with his weapon drawn.
He later told investigators he opened fire after Brown put the car in reverse and tried to back over him.
Until now, the only public account of the shooting came from Garcia. But Carthron's account matches Garcia's in many respects.
Prosecutors also found that the car was a particular threat to Garcia because the right door was open and close to him.
In the end, prosecutors said that they could not determine for sure exactly where Garcia was standing but that the preponderance of evidence suggested he was in the path of the car.
"We are unable to conclude Officer Garcia committed any criminal act," Gullon said.
This marks the second high-profile case of alleged police misconduct in which Cooley has decided not to file criminal charges. He also declined to press charges against an officer who was seen on videotape beating a car theft suspect with a flashlight.
That officer, John J. Hatfield, was fired by Bratton for misconduct.
Prosecutors failed twice recently to win convictions against a former Inglewood police officer and his partner who were caught on videotape roughing up a teenager. Both juries deadlocked.
Brown's relatives have filed a wrongful-death suit against the LAPD, which their attorney said would continue despite the prosecutors' decision.
"The fact that after almost one year the office of the district attorney refuses to tell us where he was standing," said attorney Brian Thomas Dunn, "suggests that they don't want to admit that [Garcia] was not in danger at the time that he fired the 10 shots."
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