No case, no justice

Patt Morrison

BY NOW, Charupha Wongwisetsiri has been cremated and her mom has moved out of the Craftsman condo in Angelino Heights where 9-year-old Charupha was shot as she stood in the kitchen.

The two guys who the cops believe shot the little girl — unintentionally, but dead is dead — have been sprung from jail. They're back at home, right across the street from where Charupha lived.

The neighbors are steamed. The cops met with them last weekend and, insofar as you can read a cop, the cops are steamed too, a neighbor told me. No gun. No good witnesses. No case — yet.

Sometimes, in the imperfect universe of law and justice, you can't get the killers. Nobody wants this to be one of those times. Nobody wants Charupha's to be another face in the Los Angeles family album of the blameless dead — kids, church ladies, grandpas — whose killers never answer for what they did.

The D.A.'s office in Los Angeles County maintains a hard-core gang division, and for nearly three years, Joseph Esposito has been its assistant chief. Esposito and his detectives spent most of Christmas puzzling out what happened on Dec. 20 along East Kensington Road. As far as they can tell, a supposed gang-banger drove up and leveled a gun at the pair of guys in the driveway across the street from Charupha's, and the two pulled their guns and opened fire. They didn't hit the guy in the car. (His gun evidently jammed anyway.) Instead, one bullet flew across Kensington and through the walls, and Charupha dropped where she stood.

The driveway guys were arrested. After no gun turned up and a witness changed his story, they were released.

"I ended up getting phone calls from citizens basically furious with me," Esposito told me. "One lady said to me, 'You're irresponsible for not charging these two guys with murder.' That to me is an irresponsible statement. I'd like to, but I can't.

"I'd like to say to everyone: 'You've gotta be kidding me — you don't think we've looked at this case from every imaginable direction inside and out?' But we've got to work within the four corners of the law."

Dura lex, sed lex: The law is hard, but it is the law. If you can't make the case, you don't have a case.

The D.A.'s paperwork makes it clear that no one is closing the book on this. But it also says that one witness gave "a factual scenario that may give rise to a valid claim of self-defense." And hasn't that raised some holy hell.

Whoever fired the fatal bullet, the real killer may be the man who pulled his gun first, even though it jammed. It's corkscrew logic when you can connect the dots between a different gunman and a little girl's head, but it's codified in California's jury instructions: Someone who defends himself, even if that defense kills someone else, isn't guilty; whoever started the crime chain is guilty.

As Esposito explained, say two robbers go into a 7-Eleven and point a gun at the clerk. The clerk pulls a gun to protect himself and ends up killing someone. "The blame isn't on the clerk, it's on the person who came in and provoked the use of force." The most serious charge the pair from the driveway might face could be illegal gun possession.

Esposito gets it from friends and family on cases like this, people telling him, "Well, they're gang members, they shouldn't have a right to anything."

On the blog, gun owners have been hammering away over gangbangers' rights and gun owners' responsibilities: "We as LEGAL gun holders are responsible for the terminal resting point of each bullet fired. How is it that some low life scumbag can have a weapon on them and walk away after killing a child?"

East Kensington Road is quiet — quieter than it's been in a long time, says Patti Good, who's lived there for ages. Black-and-whites cruise past now with gratifying frequency. There's been hardly a peep out of the two alleged shooters, and some other dicey neighbors have moved out.

The hard-core gang division's conviction rate, Esposito told me, is in the 90th percentile — 9 out of 10, maybe better. The raw numbers are so big that, on paper, one more, win or lose, is a blip; but in the recordkeeping of the human mind, 10 or 20 triumphs wouldn't blot out the one that got away.

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