The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to instruct the county coroner to conduct inquests into the 2020 fatal deputy shootings of three men.
Supervisors Holly Mitchell and Hilda Solis co-authored the motion recommending the inquests into the shooting deaths of 47-year-old Dana “Malik” Young Jr., 41-year-old Samuel Herrera Jr. and 29-year-old Dijon Kizzee.
Mitchell said the point of the inquests was to ensure that the investigation into the deaths was appropriately conducted and to give the families of the men killed a clearer sense of what happened.
“We do not know what happened during the course of these investigations and how they were conducted,” Mitchell said. “The Office of Inspector General was not allowed to monitor every step … and so concerns remain about their integrity given the lack of true, comprehensive, independent oversight.
“There needs to be, at the very least, a review of the evidence in these cases, which can be provided via an inquest,” she said.
County Coroner Dr. Jonathan Lucas has already ruled each death a homicide and in all three cases determined that the cause of death was gunshot wounds. Lucas told the Civilian Oversight Commission in January that inquests are an inquiry into the circumstances, manner and cause of death and not meant to settle legal issues.
“It’s not a trial, it is not an adversarial process … there is no guilt or innocence that comes out of an inquest … it is not a quest to find all of the circumstances,” the coroner said at the time.
The District Attorney’s Office has all three cases under review to determine whether the shootings were a lawful use of force, according to a DA’s spokesman. Sheriff Alex Villanueva accused Mitchell and Solis of “misleading the public” and “trying to sell the idea that somehow (these men) were unjustly murdered by sheriff’s deputies” as part of a political attack.
Mitchell countered, “I believe our residents deserve more than rather juvenile name calling,” while Solis and other board members said they wished they didn’t have to work around the sheriff. Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she believes the sheriff undermines his own department by painting a picture that the board is against law enforcement.
“We’re not,” Barger said. “We want accountability (in all departments). Accountability is vital in public trust.”
Barger pointed to remarks by a cousin of Kizzee, who cried out to the board during public comment, saying her family deserved to know why her cousin was shot 16 times. If the shooting was justified, the sheriff should be willing to cooperate, Barger said.
“For me, the frustration is, if there is nothing there, what are you afraid of?” Barger said. “We’re merely trying to get to the bottom for the families.”
Some members of the Civilian Oversight Commission, a watchdog group charged with overseeing the sheriff’s department, have pressed for inquests in all fatal deputy shootings. COC Commissioner Priscilla Ocen said in January that it was important for the public to see that the county is taking these investigations seriously.
The board Tuesday directed the coroner to work with county counsel, the inspector general and COC to develop a general policy on inquests in deaths related to deputy shootings. Lucas said in January that it would be hard to impose a policy that was anything other than “all or none.” He also raised concerns about costs and limited resources, though he acknowledged these should not be paramount.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl offered a “friendly amendment” Tuesday calling for the CEO and other staffers to budget the costs and see if new funding sources could be identified. That amendment was accepted and approved.
Prior to coroner’s inquests into the deaths of Andres Guardado Pineda and Fred Williams III — conducted by retired California Court of Appeals Justice Candace Cooper — county lawyers had expressed hope that deputies would testify publicly to shed more light on what happened.
In both cases, however, the deputies involved in the fatal shootings submitted declarations saying that if called for questioning, they would invoke their Fifth Amendment right not to testify. Cooper did not subsequently call them to appear.
Files reviewed during both of those inquests remain sealed.