LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A now-former security guard at a Hollywood Walgreens store pleaded not guilty today to a murder charge stemming from the shooting death of a man he suspected of shoplifting at the pharmacy.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Teresa Sullivan ordered Donald Vincent Ciota, 28, of Covina, to return to court Feb. 13, when a date is expected to be set for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for him to stand trial for the Dec. 2 killing of Jonathan Hart, 21.
Ciota remains jailed on $3 million bail, despite a request by his attorney, Mark Geragos, to have bail reduced to “something in the neighborhood of $100,000.” The defense lawyer told the judge that he was a “little perplexed” about the prosecution's reasons for filing the murder charge.
Investigators allege that Ciota confronted Hart inside the Walgreens pharmacy on Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street and the two men became involved in a physical altercation. Ciota then pulled out his firearm and allegedly shot Hart in the back of his neck as he ran away, according to prosecutors and a coroner's report.
A witness told CBS2 that Hart was carrying something as he walked near the door to use the ATM. The witness said he knew Hart, whom he believed to be homeless and suffering from mental illness.
If convicted as charged, Ciota faces a possible maximum sentence of 50 years to life in prison, according to prosecutors.
Outside court, Geragos told reporters that he believes the case was “filed prematurely.”
“There was no provocation by my client at all. This is not a murder case,” Ciota's attorney said, adding that the reports he has seen about the shooting “do not support a murder case.”
An attorney for Hart's family contends the shooting was unjustified.
“Jonathan Hart was unarmed. He was a homeless, gay, black man who was profiled we say because he was homeless, who was harassed we say because he was gay and who was shot we say because he was black,” attorney Carl Douglas told reporters outside court. “It's clear that he did not pose a deadly threat to anyone ...”
Douglas has insisted that Hart, also known as Sky Young, was not shoplifting. He said Hart and another black man were in the store, and at one point while inside the store, one of them picked up a $2.99 water flavoring product. The guard confronted the men and got into an argument with Hart, the attorney said.
“The guard feels the man push him one time,” Douglas said earlier. “The guard pushes the man back one time. The guard watches as the man turns to run toward the back door. The guard raises his gun and points at the man. The guard says, `Freeze,' as the man travels toward the door. The guard fires one shot, striking the man in the back of the neck. The guard watches as the man crumbles to the ground.”
Hart died at a hospital. Douglas said the only thing in Hart's hands when he died was a California ID card.
“Jonathan was not shoplifting,” he said. “Let me repeat that. Jonathan was not shoplifting when he was shot. That's the propaganda Walgreens wants you to report.”
Attorney Christopher B. Dolan, representing Hart's mother, told reporters the woman wants it known that “her son was not a person who posed a threat” and that her son “did not do anything that would warrant him being shot.”
“The facts are clear and the prosecutor should and would be able to prove the facts that a murder was committed and she wants this man held accountable for the death of her son,” Dolan said. “The one clear fact is he was shot in the back.”
In a statement released earlier, Walgreens said the company had “extended our deepest and most sincere condolences” to Hart's family, and noted that as a result of the shooting, “we immediately terminated the security company” that hired the guard.
“We are committed to providing a safe environment for our employees, patients and customers in the communities we serve,” according to the company. “We contract for armed and unarmed security, as well as video surveillance, in our stores based on the public safety needs of each location. We operate in thousands of communities and neighborhoods across the nation and the suggestion that we would inappropriately serve any community is simply false. We firmly believe everyone should be welcomed and treated equally in all of our stores.”
The company said in the statement that it has “cooperated with authorities and will continue to support their prosecution of this case.”
Photo: Getty Images