Suit dismissed over girl's death in SWAT shooting
By Robert Jablon and Solvej Schou
LOS ANGELES — A judge abruptly dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the mother of a 19-month-old girl who died when her father used her as a human shield during a furious gun battle with police.
The mother, Lorena Lopez, argued that SWAT officers should have used different tactics during the 2005 gunbattle that left her daughter, Suzie Pena, dead. The city said the officers believed the girl was in immediate danger and were trying to save her.
Granting a motion by the city on Monday, Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu took the case away from jurors as they were scheduled to begin hearing final arguments. Based on trial testimony, there was no way the panelists could have concluded that police officers acted unreasonably, Treu ruled.
The ruling was disappointing, said Luis A. Carrillo, Lopez's attorney. "The community should have had a voice in this. The jurors are representatives of the community," he said.
Lopez said she screamed for officers to be careful and not harm her daughter, "but they didn't hear me, and now today they didn't hear me," she told The Associated Press in Spanish.
"After waiting four years for justice to come, the officials would not open the door for the case to go to a jury. I worry that other mothers will suffer the same pain and grief that I have" because of this decision, Lopez said.
Attorney Todd Hayward, co-counsel representing the city, said the judge went through factual records developed during the trial and found that everything officers had done was necessary and appropriate. "These officers tried to do what they could to save this young child," added Christian Bojorquez, lead counsel for the city.
Police said that Pena's father was under the influence of drugs when he began a 2 1/2-hour gun battle with police on July 10, 2005. Jose Raul Pena, 35, barricaded himself in the office of his used-car dealership in the Watts area of South Los Angeles. Police said he held a gun in one hand and his daughter in the other, using her as a shield.
The child was shot in the head and leg and died in his arms. Jose Raul Pena also was killed, and one officer was wounded.
A coroner's report concluded the girl was killed by a bullet from a police SWAT team that stormed the building. Some 250 bullets were fired from more than a dozen weapons. The girl's death prompted demonstrations.
Out of the jury's presence on Monday, the judge told attorneys for both sides, along with police and the girl's mother that the police were facing a man who had "intoxicated his brain" with drugs and couldn't be reasoned with, who "ranted and raved," threatened to kill his daughters and others and fired at police, Carrillo said.
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office declined to file criminal charges against police officers after the shooting, saying they acted lawfully.
The Los Angeles Times posted a photo on their Web site of City Attorney Carmen Trutanich high-fiving a colleague after learning of the judge's decision.
"It's been very difficult, and to see on the Internet, how he was celebrating his victory," Lopez said.
Carrillo said the recently elected city attorney was insensitive and lacked compassion to react that way. "He's like a 15-year-old at a football game, displaying adolescent hubris, celebrating an action that took the life of a baby. He's incapable of feeling the pain of a mother who lost her child," Carrillo said.
City attorney spokeman John Franklin said Trutanich was excited that his staff successfully defended the city and the taxpayers of Los Angeles in a major case.
"He was so upset that we tried to get the photo removed from the Web site," Franklin said. "That photo had nothing to do with the girl's death."
Lopez said she wants to appeal and keep fighting for the memory of her daughter, but needs to consult with her attorneys before deciding on her next step.
The city's Police Commission investigated the shooting and concluded that it was mishandled early on because of poor communication and leadership. The panel however found fault with only two of the dozens of officers who were at the scene.
Police Chief William Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa assigned a panel to analyze tactics used by the SWAT team and the chief later said some tactics were altered.