L.A. medical examiner launches rare independent review of deputy shooting of Andres Guardado
Los Angeles County coroner’s officials said Tuesday that they will conduct an independent inquest into the shooting death of an 18-year-old man at the hands of sheriff’s deputies that sparked large-scale protests this year.
The county Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner released autopsy findings in July that showed Andres Guardado was shot in the back five times after he was chased by Sheriff’s Deputies Miguel Vega and Chris Hernandez in Gardena on June 18.
But the inquest, the first of its kind in nearly 30 years, will allow the coroner’s office to subpoena witnesses and present documents to an independent hearing officer who “will make findings related to the cause and manner of death,” according to a statement issued by the agency.
Retired Superior Court Judge Candace Cooper will act as the hearing officer, officials said.
“The Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner is committed to transparency and providing the residents of Los Angeles County an independent assessment of its findings in this case,” Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Jonathan Lucas said in a statement. “An inquest ensures that our residents will have an independent review of all the evidence and findings of our office and of the cause and manner of death of Mr. Guardado.”
The move marks the second time the coroner’s office has taken an unusual step in reviewing the shooting.
When Lucas made the autopsy findings public in July, the decision infuriated county Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who had placed a “security hold” on the findings to block them from public view. But a private autopsy made public by Guardado’s family — which has repeatedly accused the Sheriff’s Department of unjustly killing the man — reached the same conclusion days earlier, and Lucas decided to make the autopsy findings public in the interest of transparency.
Villanueva’s handling of the shooting and attempts to block information from being made public are among a laundry list of criticisms he has faced in recent months, leading the county Board of Supervisors to narrowly approve a motion Tuesday to explore options that could lead to his removal from office.
Villanueva, however, has said he is supportive of the inquest, which was recommended by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year.
Villanueva “is committed to transparency. As such, he previously recommended and invites the process of a medical examiner’s inquest,” the Sheriff’s Department said in a statement Tuesday. “This process can be beneficial in bringing to light facts to the public. Medical examiner inquests are conducted to determine manner and cause of death.”
Guardado was shot and killed after Vega and Hernandez saw him speaking to someone in a car blocking the entrance to an auto body shop on West Redondo Beach Boulevard in Gardena, the Sheriff’s Department has said. Authorities allege Guardado “produced a handgun” and ran away. Vega and Hernandez gave chase, and Vega shot and killed Guardado in an alley.
Vega’s attorney, Adam Marangell, has said that Guardado stopped, obeyed commands to surrender and placed the weapon he was allegedly holding on the ground. But, Marangell said, Guardado reached for the weapon as Vega tried to handcuff him.
Guardado’s death sparked large-scale protests against the Sheriff’s Department and deputies from the Compton station, which has been racked with allegations of excessive force and being a home to problematic deputy gangs in recent years. A whistleblower deputy suing the county also came forward this year and identified Vega and Hernandez as prospective members of the Executioners, a deputy gang he has said controls Compton station. Their attorneys have said those allegations are false.
Although the medical examiner’s office determined the cause and manner of Guardado’s death earlier, the inquest is a “public quasi-judicial inquiry where witnesses may be called and documents may be subpoenaed in order to inquire into the cause, manner and circumstances of death,” said Sarah Ardalani, a spokeswoman for the office.
The decision on whether to charge the deputies will be among the first major tests faced by incoming Dist. Atty. George Gascón, who defeated Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey in a contentious election last week and will take office next month.
Gascón has promised to reopen a number of controversial shooting cases involving law enforcement officers that Lacey declined to prosecute. Gascón has been supported by many of the activists who protested Guardado’s killing based on the pledge that he will hold law enforcement accountable in similar cases.
Times staff writer Nicole Santa Cruz contributed to this report.
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