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L.A. County sheriff’s deputy acquitted at manslaughter trial

Los Angeles County Sheriff Deputy Luke Liu reacts along with attorney Nicole R. Castronovo.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Luke Liu, center, reacts with attorney Nicole R. Castronovo, left, and defense attorney Michael Schwartz after being found not guilty of manslaughter on Friday.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Luke Liu has been acquitted of manslaughter in the 2016 killing of an unarmed man at a Norwalk gas station, marking a bitter defeat for county prosecutors in their first attempt to convict a law enforcement officer in a shooting in more than two decades.

Liu bowed his head as the not guilty verdict was read in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom Friday afternoon, before sharing a tearful embrace with one of his attorneys and a uniformed deputy who had come to support him.

If convicted, Liu faced up to 11 years in state prison.

The trial stemmed from a February 2016 altercation between the deputy and Francisco Garcia, a 26-year-old Norwalk man who was driving a stolen Acura when Liu approached him in a 7-Eleven parking lot. When the deputy asked Garcia, who owned the vehicle, he told Liu it was “none of his business,” according to a Sheriff’s Department report.

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Grainy surveillance video from the scene shows Liu step back from the driver’s side door to look at the Acura’s license plate, just as Garcia tries to drive away. Liu opened fire in response, striking Garcia several times in the back. Liu performed CPR on the 26-year-old, but Garcia died at the scene.

LOS ANGELES, CA
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Luke Liu, center right, receives a hug of support after being found not guilty of manslaughter.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Liu had claimed the vehicle struck him and he was in fear for his life, but multiple witnesses disputed that description. While the deputy complained of pain in his knees, head and neck after the incident, an emergency room doctor who treated him testified Liu suffered no significant injuries.

The shooting was relatively unknown until then-Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey filed manslaughter charges against Liu in 2018. Prosecutors have argued Liu acted recklessly, escalating a minor stop of a nonviolent man into a deadly confrontation that also endangered everyone else in the gas station as well as nearby drivers.

“The defendant made one tragically bad decision after another, contrary to common sense, contrary to his own training and contrary to his own departmental policy. He lost his head,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Baker said during his closing arguments earlier this week. “The shooting was unreasonable, unnecessary and therefore, also, illegal.”

Liu’s defense attorney, Michael Schwartz, argued that Garcia’s car struck Liu and contends the deputy actually began shooting when he was at the driver’s side door, rather than firing from behind the car. Liu saw Garcia reach for something and feared he had a weapon, according to Schwartz, giving him reason to believe his life was in danger.

Garcia did not have a gun. Although crime scene photos show that there was both a pipe and a metal steering wheel lock in the Acura, there’s no evidence he tried to strike Liu with either item. Several witnesses said they thought Garcia was reaching for the Acura’s gear shift to drive away.

Still, Schwartz argued, Liu’s perception is all that matters from a legal perspective.

“You’re supposed to interpret things not with 20/20 hindsight, but with the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene,” he said during his closing arguments.

Liu did not testify in his own defense, and Schwartz called only one witness, a use-of-force expert who previously served as the second in command of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. The jury deliberated for about six hours before reaching a decision Friday afternoon.

“It’s encouraging to see that with all the anti-police sentiment in today’s society, the jury was able to put that aside and decide the case based on the evidence and the law as presented in courtroom and not the court of public opinion,” Schwartz said Friday.

Liu, who had been a deputy for roughly 8 ½ years at the time of the shooting, declined an interview request through his attorney. Schwartz, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the union representing rank-and-file deputies have declined to comment on his status with the agency.

Neither the Sheriff’s Department nor the district attorney’s office responded to requests for comment on the verdict Friday.

Garcia had lived most of his life in Norwalk and left behind a young daughter, said his mother, Maria Luz Ruiz Partida. Ruiz Partida has sat in the gallery for nearly every second of the two-week trial, often tearing up as prosecutors repeatedly displayed footage of her son’s death and images of him bleeding out in the parking lot as Liu crouched nearby.

Court records show Garcia had been arrested multiple times for burglary, drug possession and vehicle offenses, but he had never been charged with a violent crime. Ruiz Partida said her son would “never hurt anyone” and had never owned a gun. Although prosecutors have acknowledged that the car was stolen, no evidence has been submitted showing Garcia actually stole it.

In an interview just days before the verdict was reached, Ruiz Partida expressed doubt that Liu would be convicted.

“I still don’t know if I should like expect for something to be done,” she said. “I’m still not wanting to make myself hopeful.”

As she left the courtroom, a tearful Ruiz Partida warned Liu that “karma would get him.”

“I feel like I lost my son again!” she said in a brief interview later Friday.

The verdict could forecast concerns for prosecutors in another high-profile case with a similar fact pattern.

Last month, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón filed murder charges against a former Long Beach school security guard for firing into a fleeing vehicle and killing 18-year-old Mona Rodriguez. Schwartz has been retained by the defendant, Eddie F. Gonzalez, and the prosecutor assigned to that case could be seen taking notes in the back of the gallery during the Liu trial this week.


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