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LA Coroner Uses Rare Inquest to Probe Deputy's Killing of Andres Guardado

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A memorial to Andres Guardado. (Josie Huang/LAist)
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For the first time in nearly 40 years, Los Angeles County's coroner is holding an inquest. The proceedings that begin next Monday will focus on the fatal shooting in June of Andres Guardado by a sheriff's deputy in Gardena.

While the inquest will seek to determine exactly what happened, its findings will not affect any potential criminal or civil cases related to the incident.

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Guardado, 18, was shot five times in the back by Deputy Miguel Vega in the driveway of an autobody shop. Vega's attorney said Guardado reached for a gun he had placed on the ground. Guardado's family says it does not believe he had a gun. The shooting sparked days of angry protests.

The inquest is the latest sign of a new scrutiny of law enforcement's use of force in an already extraordinary year that has seen widespread unrest in the streets, the partial defunding of police departments and the election of a new district attorney who promises to give greater consideration to filing criminal charges against officers who shoot people.

Even with all those factors, Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Jonathan Lucas might not have taken the rare step of ordering an inquest -- there have only been 13 since 1931, according to his office -- if it weren't for the dismal state of relations between the county and L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

The Board of Supervisors, the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and Inspector General Max Huntsman have all repeatedly clashed with Villanueva over what they claim is his repeated obstruction of their efforts at oversight, his lax disciplinary policies, and his failure to address the problem of violent deputy cliques, among other things.

In October, the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission called on Villanueva to resign. Two supervisors have echoed that call, and earlier this month the board directed staff to explore legal options for removing the elected sheriff from office.

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The sheriff has defended his record, insisting that he's fully committed to transparency and accountability. He accuses his critics in county government of being motivated by politics, noting that a number of them supported the man he defeated in Nov. 2018, former Sheriff Jim McDonnell.

"YOU HAVE TO THINK ABOUT THE POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT"

In September, the supervisors unanimously urged Lucas to conduct an inquest into the Guardado shooting. The vote followed a summer of protests over the George Floyd killing and police brutality in general.

"You have to think about the political environment that we are in right now," Supervisor Hilda Solis told us.

County officials also increasingly have lost faith in the integrity of deputy shooting investigations under Villanueva, Solis said, citing his resistance to oversight by Huntsman.

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"The County Sheriff's Department's refusal to comply with state law and permit monitoring of their investigations of themselves deeply undermines law enforcement," Huntsman said in a statement when the board passed the motion calling for an inquest.

The inquest is designed as much to reveal more about sheriff investigations as the shooting itself, said Solis. "It would certainly shed more light on how the sheriff's investigation proceeds -- what he's doing, what he's not sharing."

Villanueva dismisses the inquest as a "circus stunt" by the supervisors and the coroner.

"He's a day late and a dollar short," Villanueva said of Lucas. "We know pretty much all of the facts that are available on this case."

HOW THE INQUEST WILL WORK

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Inquests date back centuries and once amounted to a group of villagers gathering around a body to figure out the cause of death. Modern medicine has made them nearly obsolete.

Some L.A. County inquests focused on the famous -- one involved the death of Marilyn Monroe. Three of them investigated a homicide by a law enforcement officer.

Under state law, inquests may be conducted by the coroner or an appointee -- and with or without a jury. In this case, Lucas has appointed retired state Appellate Justice Candace Cooper to hear the case. Unlike in past inquests, there will be no jury.

Cooper alone will decide which witnesses and documents to subpoena, which questions to ask, and the final determination. The law is narrow; it only allows an inquest to determine the circumstances, manner and cause of death, and the findings cannot be used in any criminal or civil case.

THE SHOOTING

In a briefing to reporters in August, Sheriff's Commander Chris Marks said two deputies on patrol spotted Guardado standing on the sidewalk talking to some people in a parked car outside an auto body shop shortly before 6 p.m. on June 18.

"At some point, Mr. Guardado was seen in possession of a handgun and then ran southbound down the driveway," Marks said. The deputies gave chase on foot, and "ultimately caught up to Mr. Guardado at the rear of the business, where a deputy-involved shooting occurred," he said.

Friends of Guardado said he was working as a security guard at the auto body shop, but he had no security guard license and no uniform, according to Marks, who added the location had been the scene of a shooting 11 days earlier.

There's no video of the deputy shooting Guardado -- the department said detectives had removed the digital recorder for the property's security cameras as part of their investigation into the previous shooting. And sheriff's deputies only started wearing body cameras last month.

EXPLOSIVE EVIDENCE

An autopsy commissioned by the Guardado family and the coroner's autopsy -- released despite the sheriff placing a "security hold" on it -- found Guardado had been shot five times in the back. Toxicology tests found no drugs in his system.

The coroner's decision to release the autopsy before sheriff's investigators had finished interviewing witnesses was unprecedented.

In another highly unusual move, Deputy Vega's attorney issued a statement giving his client's version of the incident. Guardado complied with commands to stop, put his hands in the air, place the gun on the ground and lie face down, according to attorney Adam Marangell.

But as Vega was preparing to handcuff him, Guardado reached for the gun, the attorney said.

For longtime South L.A. activist Najee Ali, the biggest outrage is that the autopsies revealed that Vega shot Guardado five times in the back.

"I don't give a damn whether he had a gun or not, the fact is he was shot in the back," Ali shouted at a rally near the scene of the shooting.

One key witness who may provide more insight into what happened is Vega's partner, who has said he partially saw what happened.

THE PRESIDING OFFICER: AN L.A. LEGAL TRAILBLAZER

Candace Cooper, the presiding officer appointed by the coroner, declined to be interviewed before the inquest.

She has been described by various lawyers as one of the most respected jurists in Los Angeles.

Cooper, who is Black, grew up in the Crenshaw District when it was mostly white. The daughter of an LAPD officer, she got her law degree from USC.

In the 1970s, she was a trailblazer who went to work at some of the city's biggest law firms, including O'Melveny & Meyers and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

"She was one of the few black females that was brought into a major law firm," said longtime civic activist Virgil Roberts, who is managing partner and founder of the law firm Bobbitt and Roberts. He has known Cooper since the '70s.

In 1980, Cooper was appointed as a judge on the Municipal Court and rose from there to eventually serve as a justice on the California Court of Appeal, including eight years as the presiding judge.

She retired from the bench in 2008 and currently works in dispute resolution as a mediator and arbitrator.

"She has that calm, self-confident demeanor that you would expect of a lawyer," Roberts said. "Think of her as a female Obama."

In a 2010 interview with USC, Cooper acknowledged her widely praised temperament.

"I think one reason that I got a lot of accolades for judicial temperament is that everyone that comes into my court has the same status -- the homeless person, a police officer," she said. "People appreciate that."

RON SETTLES AND RUBEN SALAZAR

The last inquest in L.A. was in 1981. The coroner convened a jury to examine the controversial death of 21-year-old Cal State Long Beach football star Ron Settles inside a jail cell in the city of Signal Hill.

Police said Settles, who was black, hanged himself after fighting with officers. But after nine-and-a-half days of testimony, the jury ruled 5-4 that he died "at the hands of another" -- a term of art for homicide. The case attracted national attention and there were calls for criminal charges to be brought against the officers, who had refused to testify.

But because the law doesn't allow the district attorney to use the findings from an inquest, the D.A. declined to file charges. The Settles family and community activists were outraged.

In 1970, the coroner called an inquest into the death of famed Mexican-American journalist Ruben Salazar. Salazar had been killed by a tear gas projectile fired by a sheriff's deputy during a Chicano Vietnam War protest in East L.A.

The inquest was broadcast live on local TV stations on a rotating basis, with Tom Brokaw anchoring part of the hearings. Archival footage shows Chicano activists angrily leaving the hearing as the focus of the inquest turned to the political views of protest organizers.

In the end, the inquest determined that Salazar died at the hands of another, but not whether the deputy intended to kill him.

"It didn't really solve the problem that the authorities had set out to solve, which was to quiet the questions and to leave the public with a feeling that justice had been served," said journalist Philip Rodriguez, who produced a documentary film on Salazar.

The inquest into the shooting of Guardado may also fail to quiet public anger over the killing. But it may at least provide a closer look at what happened the day Guardado was shot -- and how the Sheriff's Department conducted its investigation.

"It provides a forum for airing testimony and documents that are otherwise kept out of the public eye," said Loyola Law School Professor Eric Miller.

It can often take a long time for the full story to emerge. In the Salazar case, it was in 2011, more than 40 years after he was killed, that a civilian watchdog agency that had been allowed to review thousands of pages of Sheriff's department documents concluded that deputies committed a series of tactical blunders, but there was no evidence they had targeted Salazar.