The controversial death of an incoherent, knife-wielding young mother shot on a hospital rooftop was tragic but not criminal, and no charges will be filed against the Los Angeles police officers who killed her, prosecutors said Wednesday.
In a 45-page report that, among other things, raises "the possibility . . . that the officers are not being truthful about their actions that evening," the Los Angeles County district attorney's office detailed the Dec. 16, 1993, shooting of Sonji Danese Taylor, who died in a fusillade of bullets after officers discovered her on the roof of St. Vincent Medical Center in Westlake holding her 3-year-old son at knifepoint and shouting, "For the blood of Jesus!"
The seven officers who responded to the call managed to free the sobbing toddler by shooting pepper spray into Taylor's face. But as they pulled the child to safety, police said, the woman lunged at one of the officers with the knife and they were forced to shoot her.
In the aftermath of the incident, Taylor's family sharply criticized the police, saying that excessive force was used. Later, the case sparked intense publicity when autopsy reports revealed that Taylor--whom the officers contended attacked them head-on--had 10 bullet wounds in her body, seven of them in her back.
The report acknowledged the controversy over the case and the speculation among critics of a police cover-up. Indeed, prosecutors Christopher Darden and Richard Goul wrote, the evidence does not square with the police account.
"The major question remains: How could Taylor lunge forward at the officers and yet be shot in the back?" Darden and Goul wrote.
However, they noted, the fusillade of bullets also may have twisted Taylor's body around as she fell--a possibility that would undermine criminal prosecution of the officers because under the law relating to circumstantial evidence, if a jury is presented with two rational conclusions and one points to innocence, that is the conclusion it must adopt.
Moreover, the prosecutors wrote, the officers' version largely is buttressed by the accounts of other witnesses, who were too far away to clearly see the shooting but close enough to see and hear what led up to it.
"There is no evidence that the officers were motivated to fire their weapons by anything other than their genuine belief that they were in imminent danger of great bodily injury or death," the report states.
However, attorneys for Taylor's family, who have filed a $20-million claim against the city, labeled that conclusion unacceptable.
"If this woman posed such a danger, why wasn't she shot in the chest?" lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. asked. "For the district attorney's office to find that this was a justifiable shooting is outrageous."
Relatives of Taylor--a 27-year-old single mother and former homecoming queen who was training to become a state corrections officer--have said it is unclear what she was doing at the hospital that day. In their report, prosecutors expressed similar bafflement. Hospital records showed that she was not a patient at St. Vincent and had never been treated there.
Nor was there much additional light shed on her mental state. Autopsy reports included in the report indicate that she was not under the influence of drugs at the time of her death or suffering from any brain injury. The only sign of the violence to come was a sales receipt from a Best Store in West Covina, where Taylor spent $121.20 shortly before her death on three kitchen knives, a knife sharpener and a troll doll.
Hospital staff members said the first knowledge they had that she was in the building came about 8 p.m., when a janitor heard a child crying in a stairwell, and turned a corner to find Taylor with her son in a headlock and a 12 1/2-inch kitchen knife in her free hand.
The janitor, who spoke only Spanish, asked what she was doing but could not understand her response, the report said. By the time he returned with his supervisor, the woman had run for the rooftop helipad.
Hospital security guards found Taylor with her child clutched under one arm, slashing the air and threatening to stab anyone who came near. About 8:25 p.m., a hospital dispatcher called 911 and seven police officers arrived.
Officers interviewed in the report said they begged Taylor to drop the knife and release the child. But the woman, they said, continued chanting, "the blood of Jesus," and thrusting the knife within inches of her son.
"At times, it appeared she was missing the child's face by two or three inches, just barely missing him," said Sgt. Phillip Smith. Sgt. John Pasquariello said: "She was close enough to the roof ledge to walk over the side and drop him off."
When Officer Arturo Koenig shined a flashlight into her face, he said, "she didn't even blink." When officers approached, they said, she would thrust her knife at them.
"It was nothing we could do to talk her out of what she was doing, 'cause she was what I would call possessed," Pasquariello said.
Finally, Sgt. Michael Long was instructed to shoot pepper spray into Taylor's face, with Officer Craig Liedahl posted as a "designated shooter" should the woman attack, the report said.
Long sprayed the woman twice, and as she dropped the child, Pasquariello grabbed him and ran. Security guards and other witnesses on the roof gave varying accounts of the split-second actions that prompted the police to open fire. Some said they could not see Taylor clearly, others merely saw her step toward Long as her child was taken away, still others said she made a "stabbing motion" toward Long.
The officers all contend that within moments of the child's release, the woman charged at Long, knife in hand.
It was "almost like she snapped and she . . . went into almost an attack mode," Officer Mark Richardson said.
The officers began shooting from about 10 feet away; it was unclear who fired first. Long, the report said, fired twice and Liedahl seven times, each from a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol. Medical examiners reported that although there were nine shots fired, they created 10 bullet wounds.
Non-police witnesses disputed conjecture that the officers may have continued shooting Taylor after she was on the ground, but none recalled seeing her body spin under the force of the bullets--possibly, the report notes, because the LAPD investigators probing the shooting never asked them about it.