Four L.A. County sheriff’s officials refuse to testify in Andres Guardado inquest
Four Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials are refusing to testify in the coroner’s inquest into the deputy shooting death of Andres Guardado, invoking their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination even though none of them have been accused of a crime.
Deputies Miguel Vega, who opened fire, and his partner Chris Hernandez, as well as two homicide detectives investigating the case, have indicated they will not answer questions about what led up to the shooting of the 18-year-old Guardado, who was shot five times in the back in an incident that generated weeks of large protests.
A Sheriff’s Department spokesman said each person made the decision on the advice of his legal counsel, not at the direction of Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Legal experts said the move shows a refusal by the Sheriff’s Department to cooperate in a proceeding that Villanueva dismissed in a radio interview earlier this month as a circus stunt.
“I’m sure what they’re thinking is, ‘We don’t know where this is headed. We don’t know who this is going to target. We don’t know if they’re going to claim there’s some kind of cover-up. We don’t know enough not to assert our 5th Amendment right,’” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, who was not surprised by the move. “I think you can take it for what it is: No one is volunteering from that sheriff’s office to cooperate in that inquiry.”
She added: “It was clearly coordinated. It was clearly designed to protect them, and to make it more difficult to make findings that could be used against them or others.”
Mike Gennaco, a policing expert who used to oversee the Sheriff’s Department, said he was surprised that the two homicide investigators would not testify.
“I find that remarkable and disappointing,” Gennaco said. “They were fact-finders, and there’s no allegation that there was some sort of conspiracy to cover up the facts.”
The coroner’s inquest was being conducted Monday so a hearing officer, retired Judge Candace Cooper, could determine the cause and manner of death. The coroner’s office has already concluded that Guardado died by homicide on June 18 when he was shot five times in the back. The official autopsy report, released in July, said that all five gunshot wounds were fatal.
Still, the coroner’s office said it ordered up the inquest for an independent review of the findings in the highly scrutinized case “in the interest of public transparency.” The hearing came amid heightened tensions between Villanueva and county officials who accuse him of stonewalling oversight and rebuffing efforts to hold him accountable.
Four witnesses did testify in the morning: the medical examiner who performed the autopsy, a coroner’s investigator who responded to the scene and authored a summary of the incident, and two firefighters who tried to save Guardado’s life. They answered questions from county attorneys, offering a glimpse into the aftermath of the shooting that the public normally wouldn’t get until a civil or criminal trial.
Kevin Young, a deputy medical examiner, testified that the location of the bullet wounds indicated Guardado had his back to the gun when he was shot, and that he could have been on his knees or lying prone on the ground. Young said Guardado would have been able to move his hands and arms after he was struck by the first gunshot.
A journalist with L.A. Taco who interviewed a witness whom county officials couldn’t locate and the forensic pathologist who conducted a private autopsy for Guardado’s family testified in the afternoon. In video interviews, the witness told the journalist that Guardado was on his knees with his hands behind his head when he was shot.
The coroner’s office subpoenaed investigative documents from the Sheriff’s Department, which provided them to the hearing officer under seal. Before making her findings, Cooper will also review the Sheriff’s Department’s earlier news briefings on the shooting investigation, including the most recent one in August, part of which was played at the hearing.
Cooper said she wouldn’t make any findings Monday and adjourned the hearing, leaving open the possibility of calling more witnesses. It’s unclear when the proceedings will resume, or if there will be an effort to compel the four sheriff’s officials to testify.
Not much of what was presented publicly Monday was new.
Lt. John Satterfield, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman, said the “overwhelming majority” of information presented Monday came from a briefing the Sheriff’s Department held months ago. “If +90% of what was learned today...was (publicly) actually released by the sheriff months ago, how is he stonewalling accountability?” he said in a text.
The inquest was recommended by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year amid nationwide protests over police brutality, with Guardado’s shooting reigniting calls for accountability and transparency within the department.
The Sheriff’s Department has said that Guardado was shot and killed around 6 p.m. on June 18, after two deputies saw him speaking to someone in a car blocking the entrance to an auto body shop on West Redondo Beach Boulevard. Investigators said Guardado “produced a handgun” and ran away, and deputies chased him. When deputies reached him, one fired.
Vega and Hernandez’s attorneys have told The Times that the shooting was justified.
Vega’s attorney, Adam L. Marangell, said his client gave multiple commands for Guardado to stop during the chase, during which Guardado pulled out the gun. He said Guardado then obeyed commands to stop, turned around and raised both hands while still armed.
Guardado was ordered to place the firearm on the ground, which he did, Marangell said. Guardado then positioned himself facedown on the ground, but the gun was near his right hand, Marangell said.
Vega holstered his weapon and began approaching Guardado to cuff him, saying, “Don’t reach for the gun,” Marangell said. He said that’s when Guardado reached for the gun, and Vega opened fire.
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