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Criminal Justice

Jury Selection Begins In Rare Manslaughter Trial Of LA Sheriff’s Deputy Luke Liu

Luke Liu at his Dec. 11, 2018 arraignment. He stands in a gray suit with a black tie and white shirt at a wooden podium with a thin microphone snaking into the air in front of him. He is to the right, and to the left is his attorney Michael Schwartz, wearing a grey suit and tie and a white shirt. He has glasses and a full beard and mustache, and is wearing a yarmulke. Several people in the audience in the courtroom can be seen seated behind them.
Luke Liu (right) at his Dec. 2018 arraignment with his attorney, Michael Schwartz (left).
(Frank Stoltze/LAist)
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Jury selection began Monday in the trial of L.A. Sheriff’s Deputy Luke Liu, who is charged with voluntary manslaughter in the killing of an unarmed motorist at a Norwalk gas station in 2016. He also faces a special allegation of intentionally discharging a firearm.

At the time he was charged in 2018, Liu was the first law enforcement officer in L.A. County to be charged with a crime in connection with an on-duty shooting since 2000.

Two more officers have been charged since then. In August of this year, DA George Gascón charged a Torrance police officer with assault for shooting and wounding a man in 2018. And just last week, Gascón filed second degree murder charges against a former Long Beach school safety officer for killing a young woman in September.

Since former DA Jackie Lacey charged Liu, he has been on administrative leave. The deputy faces up to 21 years in prison if convicted.

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A Case Of Shooting At A Moving Car

On Feb. 24, 2016, Liu was patrolling the 10900 block of Alondra Boulevard, when he spotted a car he believed to be stolen and approached the driver, later identified as 26-year-old Francisco Garcia, according to prosecutors. They say Liu approached the driver's side door, then moved to the rear of the vehicle.

"When he returned to the driver's side door, [Garcia] began to drive away at approximately 5 mph," the DA’s office said in a statement when charges were filed.

Prosecutors allege Liu then drew his gun, "ran alongside the car and fired seven shots at Garcia." Four bullets hit the victim, killing him. The whole incident lasted about 20 seconds, according to prosecutors, and was witnessed by civilians and partially captured on video.

"We believe the officer's use of deadly force was unjustified and unreasonable under the circumstances," Lacey said.

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Liu’s attorney has said his client was afraid Garcia had a gun in the backseat and was reaching for it as he drove away.

Liu Will Be Judged Under An Old Standard

Because the shooting occurred before California’s new use of force law, which allows police to use deadly force only when “necessary in defense of human life,” the jury will consider Liu’s decision based on the 1989 Supreme Court decision in Graham v. Connor.

Under that decision, juries must use an “objective reasonableness” standard in judging police shootings and consider three factors: "the severity of the crime," "whether there is an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others" and "whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or evading.”

“The 'reasonableness' of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation,” the court said.

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Significantly, under this standard officers do not have to be in actual danger for their use of deadly force to be legal. They merely need to reasonably believe they are.

There have been more than 1,500 police shootings in L.A. County since 2000.

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Frank Stoltze covers a new movement for criminal justice reform at a time when not everybody shares the same vision.