LOS ANGELES - An attorney for the family of a teenager shot to death by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies is welcoming the county coroner's decision to hold its first inquest in more than 30 years to look into the death.
"In the nearly five months since Andres Guardado was killed, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has failed to be transparent in its investigation into the circumstances, manner and cause of Andres' death," Adam Shea, lead attorney for the Guardado family, said in a statement Wednesday.
"The Guardado family remains diligent in seeking justice for Andres and hopeful that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department will change its course of conduct for this independent investigation by formal inquest. The veil of secrecy must be lifted," Shea added.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County coroner's office announced that it has appointed a former Court of Appeals justice to conduct an inquest into the June 18 death of the 18-year-old, who was fatally shot in the back by a sheriff's deputy after running from authorities at an auto shop near Gardena.
Authorities say Guardado was armed when he ran from deputies, and contend that he reached for the gun, prompting the shooting.
The inquest will begin Nov. 30 and will be conducted by retired Justice Candace Cooper, who also served as a Superior and Municipal Court judge, as well as a justice on the California Court of Appeals. The coroner's office will subpoena documents to present at the inquest and witnesses to testify.
The inquest will be public and Cooper, as the hearing officer, will hear the testimony then make findings related to the cause and manner of death, then forward her decision and recommendation to the coroner's office.
"The Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner is committed to transparency and providing the residents of Los Angeles County an independent assessment of its findings in this case," said Dr. Jonathan Lucas, the county's chief medical examiner-coroner. "An inquest ensures that our
residents will have an independent review of all the evidence and findings of our office and of the cause and manner of death of Mr. Guardado."
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Sept. 1 to ask the coroner to conduct the inquest into the death. The board passed a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas alleging that the department had violated state law by failing to allow oversight of law enforcement investigations. It directed the county's lead lawyer to report back on the feasibility of a lawsuit within 10 days.
Ridley-Thomas also recommended the inquest and using the coroner's subpoena power to create a record of investigative steps taken by the sheriff's department related to the cause and circumstances of death.
"For far too long we have accepted the status quo -- we haven't sufficiently challenged law enforcement's incessant demands that investigations remain shrouded in secrecy,'' Ridley Thomas said. "This board must not sit by and allow the county's law enforcement department to entrench itself in traditional patterns of behavior that profoundly harm not only vulnerable communities but the entire justice system."
Ridley-Thomas said the move would also bolster the investigation into the subsequent shooting of Dijon Kizzee, who was killed by sheriff's deputies who stopped the 29-year-old Black man for "code violations" while riding his bike. Deputies say Kizzee was armed with a handgun and punched a deputy in the face, while relatives and activists said he dropped his gun and was shot more than 20 times in the back.
Sheriff's officials said they recovered a handgun near Guardado's body, and say he was reaching for the gun when he was shot. Guardado's family said he was armed because he was working as a security guard for an auto body shop. Deputies said he was not wearing a guard's uniform when they responded to a report of a non-fatal shooting in the area and wasn't licensed as a guard or old enough to hold that job under state law.
Guardado's family has filed a suit against the county for wrongful death and civil rights violations.
Inspector General Max Huntsman told the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 1 that his office would have been better able to gauge allegations against deputies in the Guardado case if his staff still had access to LASD computers, but the department locked them out some time ago.
"We have made requests for information that have been denied," Huntsman said.
The inspector general mentioned an accusation that the deputy who witnessed the shooting was involved in a deputy gang. Huntsman also revealed that the deputy who shot Guardado "didn't give a statement for weeks," saying that delay could raise concerns in the community about some kind of deal between the department and the deputy's lawyer.
"The county's Sheriff's Department's refusal to comply with state law and permit monitoring of their investigations of themselves deeply undermines law enforcement credibility," Huntsman said.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva has consistently pushed back against the board's allegations that he does not favor transparency, pointing to his direct communication with the public through postings of department policy and other information on his website and community town hall meetings. In addition to legal wrangling with the board, the department has sued Huntsman, accusing his office of conspiracy, unauthorized computer access and theft of confidential files.
The sheriff blasted Ridley-Thomas' motion when it was introduced.
"The motion proposed by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas is poorly written, riddled with inaccuracies and contradictory to the law as well as best practices employed in death investigations," Villanueva said.
The sheriff said the motion portrayed the deputy involved in a negative light that could be deemed slanderous and open the county up to civil liability. He challenged the board's authority to request an inquest, and said releasing information earlier could compromise an investigation.
"Transparency cannot come at the expense of integrity in any criminal investigation," the sheriff said.
"We do hold our employees accountable, so any suggestion or inference that we cannot hold ourselves accountable to the rule of law is factually false,'' Villanueva said.
The department welcomed the inquest, however.
"(The sheriff) is committed to transparency. As such, he previously recommended and invites the process of a medical examiner's inquest,'' the sheriff's department said in a statement Tuesday.
"This process can be beneficial in bringing to light facts to the public. Medical examiner inquests are conducted to determine manner and cause of death."