Suit over child's death dismissed

In a victory for the Los Angeles Police Department, a judge on Monday threw out a lawsuit filed by the mother of a toddler killed by a SWAT officer's bullet during an attempted hostage rescue in 2005.

The case before L.A. County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu was set to go to the jury this week after SWAT officers and police experts completed their testimony in a two-week trial.

But Treu took the unusual step of granting the city's motion to dismiss the case minutes before closing arguments were due to begin, saying police officers have the discretion to use deadly force and that a jury could reach only one conclusion: that the officers acted reasonably.

Attorneys for Lorena Lopez, mother of 19-month-old Suzie Pena, argued in the trial that officers should have retreated and negotiated further with Raul Pena, who was delirious on alcohol, cocaine and methamphetamine and holding his daughter hostage in the office of his car dealership on July 10, 2005.

Daniel Rodriguez, Lopez's attorney, said after Monday's ruling that the jury should have been allowed to hear the case.

"What I dispute is that they have rules and guidelines that they're supposed to follow, one of those being contingency plans, with fluid, dynamic and forward thinking," he said.

The city contended in trial that officers attempted the rescue in the best tactical way possible, and that the baby's father was the only one to blame for her death because he chose to repeatedly hold her as a shield during the hours-long standoff.

"He controlled not only his destiny, but also his young child's," Deputy City Atty. Christian Bojorquez said.

City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, who was being interviewed by The Times when a deputy city attorney came into his office to announce the news, jumped from his chair with a cheer and high-fived the lawyer, saying millions of city dollars had been in jeopardy.

"This is a case where nobody wins except the citizens, because no one should have been sued in this case," said Trutanich, who spent four hours vetting the evidence with the city's legal team before it went to trial.

In an interview last week, Lopez vividly recalled the sweltering afternoon when Raul Pena came asking for Suzie, who sat on her lap with her hair in pigtails and wearing a yellow shirt and purple shorts. The girl broke into a wide smile when she saw her father and wanted to go with him, Lopez said.

Lopez, who worked cleaning houses to provide for her four children, said Pena appeared calm and normal, even though they had had a fight the night before and she had filed a police report. Within a few hours, he emerged from his used-car dealership holding Suzie in one arm and firing at officers with the other.

Police surrounded the block as Pena threatened to kill everybody, referring to himself as Tony Montana from the movie "Scarface."

Police officers successfully rescued Lopez's older daughter Ilsy, who was trapped in the dealership in the midst of gunfire.

But when they entered the building mistakenly believing Pena had been shot down, a barrage of gunfire was exchanged and Suzie was killed by a gunshot between her eyes from a high-velocity rifle.

Lopez said Monday she felt she was denied justice because both Pena and the police were to blame for her child's death.

"I was on my knees begging to protect Suzie, not to shoot inside, and nobody listened to me," she said.

"Today, the judge did not listen to me."


Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.

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