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LAPD tried to reverse a coroner’s verdict in girl’s death

The Los Angeles Police Department waged an aggressive behind-the-scenes campaign to convince coroner’s officials to change their finding that a SWAT officer’s bullet killed a 19-month-old girl held hostage by her father three years ago, according to records reviewed by The Times.

The intense lobbying effort, which involved one of the department’s highest-ranking officials, led to significant friction between the LAPD and coroner’s office. It also raises questions about whether the LAPD crossed an ethical line in pushing so hard, some medical and law enforcement experts said.

Ultimately, the LAPD’s campaign led nowhere. The coroner has stood firmly behind its conclusions. But the Police Department’s unusual attempt to have the case reopened underscores the deep, lasting effect the death of the child, Suzie Pena, has had on the officers involved and on SWAT as a whole.

The elite special weapons and tactics unit had never before killed a hostage in thousands of operations over nearly 40 years and had long operated as an insular, seemingly untouchable group shrouded in mystique. The shooting exposed SWAT, used largely to serve warrants on dangerous suspects and handle standoffs involving barricaded people, to vigorous scrutiny by a panel of consultants convened by LAPD Chief William J. Bratton that conducted a top-to-bottom review of how it operates. Out of the review came changes aimed at making the unit less isolated from the rest of the department and reforms in the way members are selected.

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Through a spokesman, Bratton refused to comment for this article and refused to allow other LAPD officials to respond, citing ongoing lawsuits regarding the Pena shooting. Coroner’s officials also declined to comment.

Tragic shooting

By all accounts, the shooting on July 11, 2005, ended tragically. Armed and high on cocaine, a suicidal Jose Raul Pena faced off with police at his used-car dealership in Watts. Pena traded fire with officers who had surrounded the lot, then barricaded himself and his daughter in a cramped office. SWAT members, under the mistaken belief that a sniper had wounded Pena, stormed the office. Holding his 19-month-old child in one arm, Pena opened fire on the officers through a thin wall as they approached, setting off a fierce fire-fight.

When the shooting stopped, Pena was dead.

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So was the little girl. A single bullet had struck her in the head.

The tragedy drew intense scrutiny. Bratton angrily defended the actions of his officers, laying the blame at Pena’s feet. He promised, however, that the department would not shy away from the truth. “It is quite likely our officers killed both the suspect and the baby,” he said at an emotional press conference two days after the incident. “We’re not going to hide that.”

The next day the Los Angeles County coroner’s office -- the agency legally responsible for determining the cause of all deaths in the county -- confirmed Bratton’s fears. The wound to the girl’s head had been caused by a high-velocity bullet fired from one of the rifles SWAT members used that day, the coroner concluded. A grim-faced Bratton again expressed “deep regret.”

Internal LAPD and coroner records recently reviewed by The Times, however, show that Bratton’s public acceptance of responsibility quickly gave way to something far more complicated. For more than a year afterward, the records show, the LAPD quietly and aggressively pursued its own theory that Suzie Pena’s father -- instead of a SWAT officer -- had shot the infant.

The idea that Pena had killed his daughter came from a 32-year-old criminalist in the LAPD’s crime laboratory. With four years on the job, Amy Driver had been assigned to the forensic team examining the ballistic evidence left behind by the dozens of bullets fired by Pena and the SWAT officers. Within days of the shooting, records show, Driver reviewed the coroner’s detailed photos and X-rays of Suzie Pena’s injuries and became convinced that the fatal wound had likely been caused by a bullet fired at close range from the father’s handgun.

Driver, who has since left the department, took her idea about Pena to her supervisor, Doreen Hudson. The theory resonated enough with Hudson that she bought an infant mannequin in an unsuccessful attempt to re-create the gunshot wound, according to an internal LAPD case log of the investigation and Hudson’s testimony in a suit brought by the Pena family. She also began looking for outside “qualified medical experts,” according to the log. The LAPD’s criminalists are civilian employees trained to examine physical evidence, but did not have the medical qualifications to prove Driver’s theory.

Copies of the LAPD log and other documents were provided to The Times by someone closely involved in the case.

Driver’s claims gathered momentum within the LAPD as Hudson informed the detectives in the department’s Internal Affairs office, who were investigating the shooting. A month after the shooting, Hudson, Driver and several of the detectives met with top coroner’s office personnel, records show.

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It was a tense meeting. LAPD officials went into it believing that the coroner’s autopsy of the toddler had been done poorly, according to records and interviews. Using a PowerPoint presentation, they tried to convince the coroner’s forensic pathologists, who are doctors responsible for determining the cause of a death, that the bone fractures, lacerations and brain injuries the little girl had sustained were not consistent with a rifle bullet.

According to court records and the coroner’s detailed notes of the meeting, they argued that the injuries were more likely caused by Jose Raul Pena firing his handgun at close range in a downward direction as he held his child. X-rays of the toddler, they said, showed bullet fragments that could prove Driver’s theory.

Each point refuted

When the police finished their presentation, Dr. James Ribe, the senior deputy medical examiner who had performed the autopsy, and another forensic pathologist who had assisted him responded, according to Ribe’s notes from the meeting. They refuted each of Driver’s points and explained how they had come to their conclusion.

At the end of the meeting, the coroner’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, informed LAPD officials that he saw no reason to reconsider the coroner’s office’s findings. He urged the police hire an outside medical expert to review the case, records show.

Ribe, an 18-year veteran of the coroner’s department, was not pleased with LAPD’s suggestion that he and his colleagues had made a mistake. In his notes, he referred to Driver’s argument as “weak,” said it was filled with “glaring technical errors” and dismissed her “ridiculous attempt to postulate a gunshot wound extending downward.”

He also expressed dismay that the LAPD had not sought the expert opinion of an independent doctor and had allowed a criminalist without the necessary medical training to put forth her thoughts in a case involving the actions of officers in her own department.

“It was scientifically and ethically irresponsible,” he wrote. “All this raises extremely disturbing questions about the integrity of the LAPD’s approach to this investigation.”

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Ribe had been a source of controversy before, coming under scrutiny in 2003 for a pattern of changing his findings. At that time, Sathyavagiswaran backed Ribe staunchly, praising him for his willingness to reexamine his conclusions and calling him “an honest, top-notch forensic pathologist.”

The LAPD did not let the issue drop. Police officials drew up a “fact sheet” that summarized Driver’s ideas, addressed it to Sathyavagiswaran and again asked him to reopen the case. When that led nowhere, Michael Berkow, then LAPD’s deputy chief in charge of internal affairs, requested another meeting with Sathyavagiswaran on Oct. 13, 2005. At the meeting, the deputy chief urged the coroner to reconsider but was again rebuffed, according to Ribe’s notes and testimony by Hudson in a lawsuit filed by Pena’s family.

In a recent interview with The Times, Berkow, who has since left the LAPD, defended the department’s actions, saying that it was the responsibility of his investigators to pursue every possible explanation of what had happened during the shootout. Bratton had approved of the effort, he said.

The department tried repeatedly to find a pathologist to review the case, according to the LAPD’s case log, which shows that Hudson tried to contact at least eight outside experts. One of the requests was made to the U.S. military’s pathology institute. When the institute refused to accept the case, Berkow formally appealed to the Department of Defense and was turned down again, records show.

The LAPD’s search led eventually to Dr. William Oliver, a forensic pathologist at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. For a $2,000 consulting fee, Oliver agreed to review the case in the summer of 2006, according to the LAPD’s internal case log of the investigation. His conclusions, however, were not what the LAPD wanted to hear.

“There is little or no good evidence that the wound is from . . . a handgun,” he wrote.

Although Oliver’s findings apparently brought an end to the LAPD’s lobbying effort, the fallout from the shooting went on. The panel convened by Bratton after the incident delivered a sharp critique of the unit. Since then, Bratton has made several changes to SWAT, some of which deeply angered some SWAT officers. Most controversial were changes to the selection criteria, which the consultants said over-emphasized physical prowess.

Officers cleared

The civilian body that oversees the LAPD eventually cleared the SWAT officers who stormed Pena’s office of any wrongdoing. But the incident continued to hang heavily over the unit, and some LAPD officials said the department hoped that Driver’s theory would absolve the officers of any guilt they felt.

Some law enforcement watchdog groups and medical experts, however, said it was appropriate for the LAPD to pursue Driver’s theory but questioned the way in which the department went about it.

Dr. Gregory J. Davis, a professor of pathology at the University of Kentucky and a member of the ethics committee at the National Assn. of Medical Examiners, said the LAPD should have consulted with an outside expert before approaching the coroner and that it was “certainly inappropriate” to have a deputy chief spearhead the lobbying.

“It has the intimation of bringing pressure to bear on the coroner,” Davis said.

Peter Bibring, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said he was concerned with the extent of the LAPD campaign.

“It seems unlikely that they would have gone to such lengths to challenge the coroner if they had found that the father had killed the baby,” he said. “It is so important that [investigations into police shootings] are impartial and unbiased. Even if this is just a problem of perception, the public has to be able to have faith that when the department goes the extra mile like this that it is about accuracy instead of exonerating officers.”

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joel.rubin@latimes.com


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