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L.A. County sheriff’s deputy ordered to stand trial in shooting death of motorist

L.A. County sheriff’s deputy ordered to stand trial in shooting death of motorist
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Luke Liu, right, appears with his attorney, Michael D. Schwartz, in a downtown courthouse in 2018. Liu was ordered to stand trial for voluntary manslaughter. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

For the first time in nearly two decades, a Los Angeles County law enforcement official has been ordered to stand trial for a fatal shooting.

Sheriff’s Deputy Luke Liu is charged with voluntary manslaughter in the Feb. 24, 2016, shooting death of Francisco Garcia at a Norwalk gas station.

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After a hearing that stretched over three days, Superior Court Judge Michael E. Pastor on Friday rejected a motion by Liu’s attorney to dismiss the manslaughter charge and a special allegation of intentionally discharging a firearm, which caused death.

When Liu, 40, was charged in December, he became the first officer to face prosecution for an on-duty shooting since 2000, when LAPD Officer Ronald Orosco was accused of shooting an unarmed motorist in the back in September of that year during a dispute over a traffic citation. More than 1,500 shootings by officers have occurred since then without charges.

Liu was on patrol in 2016 when he approached Garcia at a gas station in the 10900 block of Alondra Boulevard to investigate a potential stolen car, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Oscar Plascencia.

When Liu asked Garcia whether the vehicle belonged to him, Garcia responded, “It’s none of your business,” according to a sheriff’s report.

Court documents indicate Liu stood near the driver’s door before walking to the rear of the car. As Liu returned to the front of the car, Garcia, 26, began slowly driving away at approximately 5 mph. Liu said he saw Garcia’s right hand reaching into the back seat and feared he was grabbing a firearm, according to sheriff’s records.

Prosecutors say that as Garcia pulled away, the car struck Liu along both knees. The deputy drew his service weapon, ran alongside the vehicle and fired seven shots at Garcia, who was struck four times.

An estimated 20 seconds elapsed from when Liu approached Garcia until he fired his weapon, prosecutors said. Several civilians witnessed the incident, a portion of which was captured on video.

Sheriff’s Department policy states that deputies should not fire at stationary or moving vehicles unless a person in the vehicle is imminently threatening someone with deadly force using something other than the vehicle itself.

After the shooting, Liu pulled Garcia from the car and performed CPR until paramedics arrived, according to witness testimony. Garcia was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Michael D. Schwartz, Liu’s attorney, told the judge there was insufficient evidence to prove the shooting was unlawful. Liu received minor injuries when Garcia’s car struck him, the lawyer said.

But Plascencia argued that the killing was “completely unnecessary” and that the deputy had “many, many other options” when Garcia tried to drive away.

Liu will be arraigned June 14. In the meantime, the 10-year department veteran is free on a $1.1-million bond. He has been on administrative leave since last year.

The county has already settled a wrongful-death lawsuit with Garcia’s family for $1.75 million.

L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, who was elected in 2012, has faced repeated criticism for declining to bring charges in police shootings. In an unusual move, former LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck called on Lacey to prosecute one of his officers this year, but her office declined.

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When Liu was charged, Lacey said the use of force, in this case, was not reasonable — the critical factor that often determines whether an officer is charged in a fatal shooting.

“We believe the officer’s use of deadly force was unjustified and unreasonable under the circumstances,” she said. “There is an inherent danger for law enforcement officers every time they put on the uniform. We applaud their dedication and bravery to make split-second decisions in potentially life-threatening situations. But we also must hold them accountable when their conduct is unlawful.”

The filing has infuriated deputies, who at an earlier arraignment of Liu’s packed the courtroom in support of their colleague.

Liu’s attorney has insisted the evidence shows Garcia ignored the deputy’s orders to put his hands on the wheel and drove into his client, prompting Liu to believe that his and others’ lives were threatened by the fleeing suspect.

City News Service contributed to this story.

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