Torrance Officers Plead Not Guilty to Manslaughter in 2018 Fatal Shooting

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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Two Torrance police officers pleaded not guilty Monday to a grand jury indictment charging them with voluntary manslaughter in the 2018 shooting death of a Black man who was found sitting inside a car that had been reported stolen.

Officer Matthew Concannon, 37, and former Officer Anthony Chavez, 34, could face up to 11 years in state prison if convicted as charged in the Dec. 9, 2018, killing of Christopher DeAndre Mitchell, according to Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón.

The two entered their pleas through their attorneys, with Judge Ricardo R. Ocampo ordering them to return to the downtown Los Angeles courthouse May 15 for a pretrial hearing.

The indictment of both officers was unsealed Monday. It was a dramatic reversal of fortune for the officers, coming three years after then- District Attorney Jackie Lacey's office declined to file any charges against the two officers, finding that they were justified in using deadly force against 23-year-old Christopher DeAndre Mitchell on Dec. 9, 2018. Mitchell was spotted in the parking lot of a supermarket inside a black Honda Civic that had been reported stolen.

Gascón -- who vowed during his campaign to take a harder look at law enforcement use-of-force cases -- re-opened the investigation when he took office.

The district attorney noted that the indictment, handed up March 24, stemmed from a re-investigation by former federal prosecutor Lawrence Middleton, who was appointed to serve as an independent special prosecutor involving use-of-force incidents by law enforcement officers that had previously been declined for prosecution.

"I can tell you that independent of the special prosecutor's review, when we reviewed this case just looking at the case early on there were many questions for us concerning the justification of the shooting," Gascón said. "He (Middleton) alone came to the conclusion that this was a prosecutable case."

Mitchell's mother said, "It's been a long time coming. It's been a rough journey. My heart, my soul is deeply hurt so bad. I miss my son, Christopher DeAndre Mitchell, so much. My son's life was stolen by Matthew Concannon and Anthony Chavez. He didn't get a chance to live his best life. I will never become a grandmother."

She said she had "put my son's case in God's hands" and "he put the right people, the right people in place to open up this case and pull it through and I'm so, so happy."

Shortly after the indictment was unsealed, Mitchell's uncle, Terrell Traylor, told reporters outside court that his family has been "fighting for justice for my nephew" for 4 1/2 years and said "the fight is still going."

He said he believes an air rifle recovered from the vehicle "could have been planted there."

Sheila Bates, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, said, "We at Black Lives Matter Los Angeles are relieved to hear that Matthew Concannon and Anthony Chavez were indicted by a grand jury, but are disappointed that the charges are merely voluntary manslaughter. This case is clearly a murder case ..."

Another Black Lives Matter organizer, Melina Abdullah, said, "We're witnessing some semblance of accountability. We know that it's important to get Anthony Chavez and Matthew Concannon not just indicted, not just convicted ... We need to get these people off the streets."

The shooting has been repeatedly criticized by Black Lives Matter activists, who held regular protests at Torrance City Council meetings for months following Mitchell's death. It was also cited in various protests aimed at Lacey, whom BLM protesters criticized as being unwilling to prosecute law enforcement officers.

According to the 2019 review of the case by the District Attorney's Office, a man flagged down Torrance police around 8 p.m. Dec. 9, 2018, near 220th Street and Western Avenue, saying his black Honda Civic had been stolen. A short time later, surveillance video captured the vehicle pulled into a Ralphs parking lot on West Carson Street.

Chavez and Concannon pulled into the parking lot and used their patrol car to block the Honda in place.

The officers got out of their vehicle, approached the Honda and saw Mitchell in the driver's seat, the report said. The officers yelled "police" and told Mitchell to put his hands on the steering wheel, which -- after a moment's hesitation -- he did. Concannon opened the door, the 2019 report added. Mitchell, according to the report, dropped his hands into his lap and Concannon -- following Mitchell's movement -- saw what he thought was a firearm but what actually turned out to be an air rifle, according to the report.

Concannon drew his gun and told Mitchell not to move. Mitchell, who police said later was believed to be a gang member, returned his hands to the wheel, apologized twice and then dropped his hands again.

Concannon, the report said, gripped his gun with both hands. But, according to body camera footage released later, it's not clear whether Mitchell dropped his hands a second time because Concannon blocked the view of his body-worn camera as he gripped the gun. The district attorney's report acknowledged this, too.

"Mitchell is not visible on the body-worn footage during the three seconds preceding the first shot," the report said, noting that Concannon ordered Mitchell to get out of the car. "About one second after repeating that command, the first shot was fired." Three shots total were fired, one by Concannon and two by Chavez, according to the report.

Concannon and Chavez waited for backup and, after it was clear there was no further threat, officers attempted life-saving measures on Mitchell. But he died from his injuries.

The Torrance Police Department issued a statement Monday noting that "any loss of life is a tragic outcome and rightly requires diligent review," but expressing "shock" at the charges.

"Considering the facts as we know them, including the previous determination that Officer Concannon and former Officer Chavez acted in lawful self-defense, the revelation of the indictment comes as a shock to the Torrance Police Department," according to the agency. "We acknowledge that due to the secret nature of Grand Jury proceedings, we are unaware of the entirety of the evidence presented to the grand jury, which led to the indictment. As that evidence is revealed, the merit of the criminal allegations will ultimately be determined through due process in a court of law. We ask for the communities' support in allowing that process to transpire."

The Los Angeles Times reported that Concannon and Chavez were among 15 officers linked to a racist text message scandal in the Torrance Police Department, involving messages sent between 2018 and 2020. According to court papers, the messages included racist comments about Black people, Latinos, Jewish people and the LGBTQ community.

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