Supervisors seek inquests into three fatal shootings

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Sept. 28 to instruct the county coroner to conduct inquests into the 2020 fatal deputy shootings of three men.

Supervisors Holly Mitchell and Hilda Solis co-authored the motion recommending the inquests into the shooting deaths of 47-year-old Dana “Malik” Young Jr., 41-year-old Samuel Herrera Jr. and 29-year-old Dijon Kizzee.

Mitchell said the point of the inquests was to ensure the investigations into the deaths were appropriately conducted and to give the families of the men killed a clearer sense of what happened.

We do not know what happened during the course of these investigations and how they were conducted,” Mitchell said. “The Office of Inspector General was not allowed to monitor every step … and so concerns remain about their integrity given the lack of true, comprehensive, independent oversight.

There needs to be, at the very least, a review of the evidence in these cases, which can be provided via an inquest,” she said.

County Coroner Dr. Jonathan Lucas has already ruled each death a homicide and in all three cases determined that the cause of death was gunshot wounds.

Lucas told the Civilian Oversight Commission last January that inquests are an inquiry into the circumstances, manner and cause of death and not meant to settle legal issues.

It’s not a trial, it is not an adversarial process … there is no guilt or innocence that comes out of an inquest. … It is not a quest to find all of the circumstances,” the coroner said at the time.

The District Attorney’s Office has all three cases under review to determine whether the shootings were a lawful use of force, according to spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva accused Mitchell and Solis of “misleading the public” and “trying to sell the idea that somehow [these men] were unjustly murdered by sheriff’s deputies” as part of a political attack.

Mitchell countered, “I believe our residents deserve more than rather juvenile name calling,” while Solis and other board members said they wished they didn’t have to work around the sheriff.

Villanueva later posted a statement on Twitter, saying the official coroner’s reports, incident summaries and names of deputies involved had been publicly posted for some time at lasd.org, along with video footage related to Kizzee’s shooting.

The sheriff said the inquests would amount to “good political theater” but would prove to be a waste of tax dollars and “not provide one single shred of new information.”

Additionally, these actions may serve to jeopardize any criminal case which could be determined by” the Justice System Integrity Division of the D.A.’s office, the sheriff warned.

Instead, he urged the board to focus on why it takes the D.A.’s office years in some cases to rule on the use of force, saying he has previously called for the district attorney to issue an opinion within 90 days of any case being submitted.

Prior to the sheriff’s late-breaking comments, Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she believes the sheriff undermines his own department by painting a picture that the board is against law enforcement.

We’re not,” Barger said. “We want accountability [in all departments]. Accountability is vital in public trust.”

Barger pointed to remarks by a cousin of Kizzee, who cried out to the board during public comment, saying her family deserved to know why her cousin was shot 16 times. If the shooting was justified, the sheriff should be willing to cooperate, Barger said.

For me, the frustration is, if there is nothing there, what are you afraid of?” she said. “We’re merely trying to get to the bottom for the families.”

Some members of the Civilian Oversight Commission, a watchdog group charged with overseeing the sheriff’s department, have pressed for inquests in all fatal deputy shootings.

Commissioner Priscilla Ocen said in January that it was important for the public to see that the county is taking the investigations seriously.

The Board of Supervisors directed the coroner to work with county counsel, the inspector general and the Civilian Oversight Commission to develop a general policy on inquests in deaths related to deputy shootings.

Lucas said in January that it would be hard to impose a policy that was anything other than “all or none.” He also raised concerns about costs and limited resources, though he acknowledged those should not be paramount concerns.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl offered a “friendly amendment” calling for the county CEO and other staffers to budget the costs and see if new funding sources could be identified. That amendment was accepted and approved.

The coroner’s office held inquests into the deaths of Andres Guardado Pineda and Fred Williams III in January conducted by retired California Court of Appeals Justice Candace Cooper. County lawyers had expressed hope that deputies would testify publicly to shed more light on what happened.

In both cases, however, the deputies involved in the fatal shootings submitted declarations saying that if called for questioning, they would invoke their Fifth Amendment right not to testify. Cooper did not subsequently call them to appear.

Files reviewed during both of those inquests remain sealed.

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