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Criminal Justice

Videos Expected To Play Key Role In Manslaughter Trial Of LA Sheriff’s Deputy

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. To the left is his attorney Michael Schwartz, wearing a grey suit and patterned 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. In an extraordinary trial, Liu faces a manslaughter charge for killing an unarmed man.
(Frank Stoltze/LAist)
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How jurors interpret video from two security cameras atop a 7-Eleven in Norwalk may decide the fate of L.A. Sheriff’s Deputy Luke Liu, who went on trial for manslaughter Wednesday in the 2016 fatal shooting of an unarmed motorist.

Liu is the first law enforcement officer in L.A. County to stand trial for shooting someone in more than two decades.

Juries typically side with police — but this trial may be a test to see if they judge officers more harshly in this era of intense scrutiny of law enforcement.

As with the video of the beating of Rodney King three decades ago, the prosecutors and the deputy’s defense team are expected to play — over and over again — the videos of Liu shooting and killing Francisco Garcia, 26.

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Liu’s attorney is veteran police attorney Michael Schwartz, who has successfully defended officers “in some of the toughest and most noteworthy criminal cases venued in Southern California,” according to his firm’s website.

The View From The Top Of The 7-Eleven

The two cameras on the 7-Eleven look down at the store’s gas pumps. In one video, Liu pulls his patrol car with lights on behind a white 1993 Acura Integra hatchback parked at pump number six in a middle lane.

Prosecutors say Liu had spotted Garcia’s car earlier and believed it was stolen, a suspicion Liu confirmed when he ran the plates through his car’s computer.

The video shows Liu walking up to the driver’s side window and apparently speaking with Garcia for a few seconds — there is no audio and the interaction is blocked by a pillar and a pump. The deputy, who was 36 with about eight years on the job at the time, then steps to the back of the car to look at the license plate again.

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As Liu begins to return to the window, Garcia begins to slowly drive away — prosecutors say he was driving no faster than 5 miles per hour. What happens after that is very much in dispute.

The videos show that as Garcia began to drive, Liu ran alongside the car and “fired wildly” into it, Deputy District Attorney Chris Baker said in his opening statement as he showed the images to the five-woman, seven-man jury for the first time. “He chased him as he was driving away towards the exit.”

Liu fired seven shots, hitting Garcia four times. He was so close that one bullet casing flew into the car, Baker said. Garcia crashed into a sign about 20 feet away.

Garcia ‘Didn’t Deserve To Die’ For Stealing A Car

Baker repeatedly played the videos and showed still shots from them, noting Sheriff’s Department policy largely prohibits deputies from shooting at moving cars. Under the policy, "firearms shall not be discharged at a stationary or moving vehicle" or its occupants unless deputies are being threatened with a gun or some other "deadly force by means other than the moving vehicle."

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“Francisco Garcia should not have stolen the car. He should not have tried to flee,” Baker said. “But he didn’t deserve to die for it.”

“That’s not what happened,” defense attorney Schwartz said in his opening statement.

He too turned to the somewhat grainy videos projected on the court’s big screen on the wall above the witness stand. While one appears to show Liu chasing after Garcia’s car, the other shows him behind the gas pump, Schwartz told the jurors.

“He only fired [from] the pump … not past the pump,” Schwartz said. One video appears to show Liu with his arm extended in a shooting position away from the pump. Schwartz said it’s not Liu's extended arm, it's part of the car window seen on the video.

The deputy fired after the car struck his knees and because he believed Garcia was reaching for a gun in the backseat, Schwartz said.

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There was no gun, but legally that doesn’t matter. Police are allowed to use deadly force if they have a reasonable belief someone poses a threat of great injury or death to them or someone else. Officers must consider the severity of the crime while juries must take into account that officers are forced to make split second decisions.

‘If You Wait To See A Weapon, You’re Already Dead’

A new California law says police may use deadly force only when “necessary in defense of human life” and after they attempt to de-escalate a confrontation. Because the law took effect in 2020, it does not apply to this 2016 shooting.

Schwartz pointed out officers are not required to see a gun before they shoot — the defense police use in almost all shootings of unarmed people. “If you wait to see a weapon, you’re already dead,” he said.

The trial is in part about Liu’s perceptions — what was going through his mind.

Schwartz said he’ll argue Liu had been working a double shift since 5 a.m. and was keenly aware that a gang homicide had taken place the night before at the same gas station. The deputy was unsure whether Garcia was a member of the gang who was coming back “to pay homage to his brethren or get revenge,” Schwartz said.

Liu is expected to take the stand during the trial.

There were five witnesses to the shooting, according to prosecutors.

Among the questions the jury will face is whether Liu was in fact hit by Garcia’s car. A doctor who treated him that day found “no bruising, no injury of any kind,” prosecutor Baker said. Liu emailed a photo of his knee to detectives 36 hours after the shooting, and the prosecutor projected it onto the courtroom screen. It was unclear if it showed any injuries.

“I ask you to have an open mind,” Schwartz told the jury. “You took an oath, and we trust you.”

Liu faces up to 11 years in prison if convicted. When he was first charged by former DA Jackie Lacey in 2018, prosecutors added a special allegation of intentionally discharging a firearm, which would have added 10 years to the maximum sentence of 11 years for manslaughter.

When current DA George Gascón took office last year, he dropped the special allegation against Liu under his policy of not pursuing sentencing enhancements or special allegations.

Liu was the only officer charged for shooting someone during Lacey’s eight years in office. Gascón, who has promised closer scrutiny of police shootings, already has filed charges against two officers in his first year in office: one from Torrance for assault and a former Long Beach school safety officer for murder.

Gascón also has appointed a special prosecutor and panel to review for possible criminal charges hundreds of police shootings Lacey already determined were legally justified.

More than 1,600 people have been shot by police in the county since 2001. A KPCC investigation that looked at a five-year period from Jan. 1, 2010 to Dec. 31, 2014 found one in four people shot by police were unarmed.

What questions do you have about criminal justice and public safety in Southern California?
Frank Stoltze covers a new movement for criminal justice reform at a time when not everybody shares the same vision.

Corrected November 5, 2021 at 10:07 AM PDT
A previous version of this story misstated the maximum sentence Liu faces if convicted.