LA County Coroner Investigates Andres Guardado's Sheriff's Deputy-Involved Death

Nov 11, 2020
Originally published on November 11, 2020 5:39 pm

Updated at 6:38 p.m. ET

The Los Angeles County coroner's office announced Tuesday it will open an independent inquiry into the sheriff's deputy-involved death of an 18-year-old man shot in June.

The announcement marked a significant step into the high-profile killing of Andres Guardado. The inquest, which had been recommended by the city's Board of Supervisors, will be the first such investigation done by the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner in more than 30 years.

Guardado was killed on June 18 after multiple shots were fired by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies. Days of protest followed the killing.

An independent autopsy, performed at the request of his family, found that he was shot five times in the back. Andres' parents, Cristobal and Elisa Guardado, have said they believe their son was "unjustifiably killed" by deputies.

Retired Justice Candace Cooper, who served as a state appeals court judge, was appointed by the coroner's office to conduct an inquest into the circumstances, manner and cause of Guardado's death, starting Nov. 30.

"The Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner is committed to transparency and providing the residents of Los Angeles County an independent assessment of its findings in this case," said Dr. Jonathan Lucas, the Los Angeles County's Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner, in his statement Tuesday. "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."

Cooper will forward her decision and recommendation to Lucas.

The handling of the case has subjected Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva and the rest of the department to intense public scrutiny, according to the Los Angeles Times. The department is also facing criticism for the shooting death of Dijon Kizzee, a Black man, in September.

The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to consider options to remove Villanueva, who is elected by voters, before his term of office is up in 2022, according to local reports.

Villanueva, however, invites the medical examiner's inquest, his office said in a statement to NPR. He "is committed to transparency."

Under California law, which grants a medical examiner the authority to hold inquests at their own discretion, the inquest is defined as a "formal court proceeding," the sheriff's office said.

The object of the inquest is to "collect information that supports the cause and manner of death," but it also serves as a "public quasi-judicial inquiry," the coroner's office added. Witnesses can be called and documents subpoenaed.

The coroner's decision to open an independent investigation is notable, said Eric Miller, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Miller is also with Loyola's Policing Los Angeles forum.

"The advantage is it's public. That may be more conducive to a fair and neutral process," Miller said.

The coroner's office said according to its records, the last inquest it conducted involved the death of Ron Settles in 1981. Settles, a Black man, was found hanged with a mattress cover in his cell about two hours after he was stopped for speeding by members of Signal Hill Police Department.

A coroner's jury ruled he died "at the hands of another other than by accident." However, no one was prosecuted for his death. The City of Signal Hill agreed to pay a $1 million settlement to the Settle family in 1983, according to an article from the New York Times at that time.

Miller believes the Guardado case may not end the same way.

The LA County District Attorney-elect George Gascón will be under pressure by Black Lives Matter LA and others in the community to crack down on excessive force, Miller said. Gascón promised to reexamine certain police-involved shootings once elected.

"Whatever the results of the inquiry, the ball is firmly in his court," Miller said. "Depending on what the report says, how he deals with it will be a major issue."

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