Off-Duty LAPD Cop Who Fatally Shot Unarmed Man In Costco Avoids Criminal Charges
A grand jury in Riverside County this week declined to indict LAPD Officer Salvador Sanchez, who killed an unarmed, intellectually disabled man who had struck him in the back of the head while standing in a food-tasting line at a Corona Costco in June.
An attorney for Sanchez, who was off-duty at the time and holding his 18-month-old son, has said the officer felt he was under attack from 32-year-old Kenneth French. Sanchez also shot and wounded French's parents.
Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin, who had convened the grand jury, said he would not exercise his option to file charges on his own.
"It would be disingenuous of me to take a case to the grand jury, present it, and then say, 'Well, thank you very much, I am not going to abide by what your decision is,'" he said.
Hestrin said he presented the case to the grand jury because it had the ability to subpoena reluctant witnesses. He also said he wanted the input of citizens on whether to prosecute.
SANCHEZ OPENED FIRE WITHIN 3.8 SECONDS
The decision came as Hestrin revealed new information about the incident:
- Sanchez opened fire almost immediately -- less than 3.8 seconds after being struck by French, according to investigators. It remains unclear whether French intentionally or accidentally hit Sanchez. His intellectual disability left him unable to communicate verbally and made him awkward sometimes in public, according to his parents.
- Sanchez fired 10 shots. Four hit French, three of them in his back, according to the DA. One hit his father in the back. Another struck his mother, leaving her in a coma for more than a week.
- Security video previously kept secret by a judge's order appears to show French's father pushing his son away from Sanchez as the officer opened fire.
- DA Hestrin revealed that Sanchez told witnesses he thought he'd been shot -- even though the only gunfire was his own.
- Hestrin also revealed there was no evidence Sanchez lost consciousness after he was struck, as his attorney had claimed. Sanchez attorney Ira Salzman said his client did suffer a concussion and that he gave the DA medical records substantiating that claim for presentation to the grand jury.
UNEQUAL TREATMENT FOR A COP?
French family attorney Dale Galipo denounced Hestin's decision to send the case to the grand jury, accusing him of avoiding the politically sensitive decision of whether to file criminal charges against a cop.
"This highlights the unequal treatment of police officers compared to other citizens when they shoot people," Galipo said in a statement.
Sanchez -- who remains on administrative leave from the LAPD -- has not spoken to reporters, but Salzman fired back.
"My client acted because he believed his son, a toddler in his arms -- that his life was in danger," said Salzman, a longtime attorney for police officers.
"It's just a terrible tragedy," he said.
A CALL FOR THE GRAND JURY TRANSCRIPT
Juries rarely convict police officers -- off-duty or not. And Hestrin said if he could not convince the required 12 of 19 grand jurors to indict, it was unlikely he could convince 12 trial jurors to convict.
But Galipo wondered how hard Hestrin argued for criminal charges during the secret proceedings, where only prosecutors are allowed to present evidence and call witnesses.
French's parents testified and relayed to Galipo what they were asked by Hestrin's prosecutors.
"Half the questions they were asked had nothing to do with the incident," Galipo said. "They wanted to know about his mental disability, whether there were any prior acts of violence."
Galipo called for the public release of the grand jury transcript.
Hestrin would have filed charges had the person doing the shooting been a civilian, said Galipo.
Sanchez didn't need to shoot French and his parents to protect himself and his child, said Pasadena attorney John Burton.
"When one uses more force than is necessary in a self-defense situation, that's well-recognized in the criminal law and is sometimes called imperfect self-defense," said Burton, former president of the National Police Accountability Project. He said an ordinary citizen would have been charged with manslaughter or even first degree murder.
Burton and other police watchdogs have raised concerns about off-duty police shootings and the mindset of officers who are carrying weapons while going about their daily lives. Off-duty officers can sometimes overreact to simple situations, he said.
"Officers who are off-duty sometimes forget that they are not wearing uniforms and they see people who, let's say, shove them or whatever as being aggressive and defiant of their authority," Burton said.
The shooting may have been a bad one, but it wasn't criminal, Hestrin said.
He maintained Sanchez reasonably believed his life was in danger -- even if it wasn't. That is the longstanding legal standard for determining whether a police shooting is justified.
"I am not condoning this shooting," he told a news conference. "I'm not up here saying it was fine."
Sanchez still faces an internal investigation by the LAPD.