When he campaigned for Los Angeles County district attorney, reform-minded George Gascon made clear he would be a different kind of top prosecutor.
A darling of the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing by Minneapolis police, Gascon blasted incumbent D.A. Jackie Lacey for not prosecuting law enforcement officers in controversial fatal shootings. In eight years in office, Lacey filed one manslaughter case in more than 340 fatal police shootings.
Gascon assured police critics he would do better.
When he took office in December 2020, the progressive D.A. immediately vowed to reopen four fatal police shootings Lacey had declined to prosecute. More than a year later, no charges have been filed in the targeted cases.
And in the past week, Gascon has declined to charge officers in two controversial fatal shootings in Inglewood and Pasadena.
Gascon’s ambitious rhetoric, it seems, is colliding with reality. As most prosecutors know, absent some compelling evidence of wrongdoing or extreme negligence, it is difficult to win criminal cases against police officers in fatal shootings — even after recent changes in state law governing when deadly force can be employed.
Burden of proof
Murder charges against police are notoriously challenging to prove in court because juries and state law governing the use of deadly force give subjective leeway to officers, who sometimes have to react to violent encounters within a split second, said Robert Weisburg, a law professor and director of Stanford University’s Criminal Law Center.
“The jury has to get inside the mind of officers,” he added. “There is simply deference to the officer’s experience and reasonable need for self-protection. Officers will say they felt threatened, that there was no other alternative, and seem to be honestly describing the situation. It’s very hard to disprove.”
That was apparently the case last week when Gascon announced there was insufficient evidence to charge five Inglewood police officers in the shooting deaths of Kisha Michael and Marquintan Sandlin, who were found unconscious inside a car in February 2016.
Michael had a gun in her lap and officers told investigators they opened fire when Sandlin awoke and reached for the weapon. All five officers were removed from the police force the following year.
The D.A.’s Justice System Integrity Division also found that there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pasadena Officer Edwin Dumaguindin did not act in lawful self-defense when he fatally shot Anthony McClain after a 2020 traffic stop in the northwest part of the city. McClain, a passenger in the car, fled on foot after the stop and was pursued by Dumaguindin. The officer believed he was reaching for a weapon, and fired two shots at him.
Gascón, a former LAPD officer who also served as district attorney in San Francisco, said on Twitter that while did does not support the officers’ actions in the shootings, he’s obligated to follow the law.
“We do want to be clear,” he said in a tweet. “The burden of proof for prosecution is high. Our decision does not mean that what happened is right.” Gascon also acknowledged that the decision not to prosecute was “excruciating and that the families are understandably devastated.”
‘More of the same’
Raúl Ibáñez, chairman of Pasadena’s Community Police Oversight Commission, called the D.A. findings in the McClain shooting “disappointing.”
Black Lives Matter Los Angeles member Michael Williams echoed those sentiments.
“I think the feeling is it’s just more of the same; things that we thought would change haven’t changed, and it’s basically Gascón telling us what we already knew,” he said. “Which is that the law is not on our side. It protects those who violate our rights, violate our autonomy, and take away our loved ones.
“We’re still hopeful that Gascón will reconsider and, instead of finding ways that he can’t — look into ways that he can bring charges against officers who murder people unjustly.”
Click here to read the full article at the LA Daily News
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