LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A coroner's office's inquest began today into the June 18 death of 18-year-old Andres Guardado, who was shot in the back by a sheriff's deputy after running from authorities at an auto shop near Gardena, where he was employed as an informal security guard.
The inquest -- the first in Los Angeles County in more than 30 years -- is being conducted by retired California Court of Appeals Justice Candace D. Cooper, who also once served as a Superior and Municipal Court judge. The Los Angeles County coroner's office subpoenaed documents to present at the inquest and witnesses to testify.
The public proceeding, which will continue Tuesday if necessary, began about 9 a.m. and was being streamed live from the downtown Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration.
Cooper, as the hearing officer, is hearing testimony and will make findings related to the cause and manner of death, and will then forward her decision and recommendation to the coroner's office.
Among the highlights of this morning's session:
-- Dr. Kevin Young, who signed the autopsy report, reviewed his previous findings that Guardado was shot five times in the back. At the conclusion of his testimony, Cooper announced that she had decided against releasing the autopsy photos into the public record, only diagrams showing the locations of the wounds.
-- Lianna Darabedyan, a coroner's investigator assigned to the case, testified that a gun was found about 3-5 feet to the right side of Guardado's head as his body lay face-down on the ground.
-- County firefighter/paramedic Andrew Clemens, who responded to the shooting scene, said Guardado was pronounced dead within about three minutes after the arrival of paramedics. Another county firefighter/paramedic confirmed the circumstances of the death, and Cooper excused other firefighter/paramedics from testifying, because their testimony would be duplicative.
-- A video that was previously released by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department on Aug. 12, showing a news conference during which sheriff's investigators reviewed their investigation up to that date, was entered into the record and was being viewed by those in the inquest room.
-- Cooper received a package of investigative documents -- under seal - - that were subpoenaed from the Sheriff's Department. The procedure will be for Cooper to review the documents, in part to determine if testimony from others will be required, and she will then return the documents under seal to the sheriff's department.
-- Declarations were entered into the record regarding Christopher Hernandez, one of the two deputies who were involved in the shooting.
-- Two Los Angeles County sheriff's homicide detectives who were assigned to the investigation -- Mike Davis and Joseph Valencia – repeatedly declined to answer questions, saying that under advice from counsel they were invoking their rights under the Constitution. Cooper excused them, but said she will determine if their blanket refusals to answer questions was appropriate and they may be called back later.
Late this morning, the inquest was adjourned to a different hearing room to prepare to receive remote testimony this afternoon from a doctor in Sacramento. Cooper said there would be no live “public feed'' of that testimony due to technological constraints; but that testimony will be uploaded and made part of the record.
In announcing the inquest on Nov. 10, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, the county's chief medical examiner-coroner, said his office “is committed to transparency and providing the residents of Los Angeles County an independent assessment of its findings in this case. An inquest ensures that our residents will have an independent review of all the evidence and findings of our office and of the cause and manner of death of Mr. Guardado.''
The Guardado family's attorney, Adam Shea, welcomed the coroner's office decision to hold the inquest, saying the Sheriff's Department had “failed to be transparent in its investigation into the circumstances, manner and cause of Andres' death.''
“The Guardado family remains diligent in seeking justice for Andres and hopeful that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department will change its course of conduct for this independent investigation by formal inquest. The veil of secrecy must be lifted,'' Shea said in a statement on Nov. 11.
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Sept. 1 to ask the coroner to conduct the inquest into the death. The board passed a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas alleging the department violated state law by failing to allow oversight of law enforcement investigations. It directed the county's lead lawyer to report back on the feasibility of a lawsuit within 10 days.
Ridley-Thomas also recommended the inquest and using the coroner's subpoena power to create a record of investigative steps taken by the sheriff's department related to the cause and circumstances of death.
“For far too long we have accepted the status quo -- we haven't sufficiently challenged law enforcement's incessant demands that investigations remain shrouded in secrecy,'' Ridley-Thomas said. “This board must not sit by and allow the county's law enforcement department to entrench itself in traditional patterns of behavior that profoundly harm not only vulnerable communities but the entire justice system.''
Ridley-Thomas said the move would also bolster the investigation into the subsequent shooting of Dijon Kizzee, who was killed by sheriff's deputies who stopped the 29-year-old Black man for “code violations'' while riding his bike. Deputies say Kizzee was armed with a handgun and punched a deputy in the face, while relatives and activists said he dropped his gun and was shot more than 20 times in the back.
Sheriff's officials said they recovered a handgun near Guardado's body, and say he was reaching for the gun when he was shot. Guardado's family said he was armed because he was working as a security guard for an auto body shop. Deputies said he was not wearing a guard's uniform when they responded to a report of a non-fatal shooting in the area and wasn't licensed as a guard or old enough to hold that job under state law.
Guardado's family has filed a suit against the county alleging wrongful death and civil rights violations.
Inspector General Max Huntsman told the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 1 that his office would have been better able to gauge allegations against deputies in the Guardado case if his staff still had access to LASD computers, but the department locked them out some time ago.
“We have made requests for information that have been denied,'' Huntsman said.
The inspector general mentioned an accusation that the deputy who witnessed the shooting was involved in a deputy gang. Huntsman also revealed that the deputy who shot Guardado “didn't give a statement for weeks,'' saying that delay could raise concerns in the community about some kind of deal between the department and the deputy's lawyer.
“The county's Sheriff's Department's refusal to comply with state law and permit monitoring of their investigations of themselves deeply undermines law enforcement credibility,'' Huntsman said.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva has consistently pushed back against the board's allegations that he does not favor transparency, pointing to his direct communication with the public through postings of department policy and other information on his website and community town hall meetings. In addition to legal wrangling with the board, the department has sued Huntsman, accusing his office of conspiracy, unauthorized computer access and theft of confidential files.
The sheriff blasted Ridley-Thomas' motion when it was introduced, calling it “poorly written, riddled with inaccuracies and contradictory to the law as well as best practices employed in death investigations.''
The sheriff said the motion portrayed the deputy involved in a negative light that could be deemed slanderous and open the county up to civil liability. He challenged the board's authority to request an inquest, and said releasing information earlier could compromise an investigation.
“Transparency cannot come at the expense of integrity in any criminal investigation,'' the sheriff said. “We do hold our employees accountable, so any suggestion or inference that we cannot hold ourselves accountable to the rule of law is factually false.''
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