LOS ANGELES (CN) — In a judicial proceeding not seen in Los Angeles County for nearly four decades, a retired judge Monday presided over an inquest into the cause of death of Andres Guardado, a teen whose fatal shooting by police this past summer reignited protests and further inflamed a rift between law enforcement and their county watchdogs.
Guardado was 18 years old when LA County Sheriff’s Department deputy Miguel Vega shot him in the back five times on June 18.
That day, Guardado was standing outside an auto body shop in Gardena, California, where he worked informally as a security guard when two officers on patrol approached him.
LA County Sheriff’s Department investigators have said Guardado ran from the officers but eventually stopped and complied with commands to lay prone on a narrow driveway next to the auto shop.
What happened next remains under investigation but police have said Vega fired his gun after Guardado reached for a pistol the teen dropped near his body.
At the inquest’s opening Monday, retired Court of Appeals Justice Candace D. Cooper said that while she will review all available and relevant evidence in the case, her role is limited to determining the cause and manner of Guardado’s death.
“This is not an adversarial proceeding,” Cooper said inside the cavernous Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration board meeting room in downtown LA.
As the hearing officer, Cooper has the sole authority to determine what evidence is admissible and can review sealed evidence.
Only county lawyers and Cooper can ask questions of witnesses, whose testimony is admissible in other court proceedings. Any decision by Cooper will be forwarded only to the county coroner.
During questioning, county attorney Michael Miller asked LASD officer Joseph Valencia whether he was under investigation for any reason related to Guardado’s death. At the advice of his attorney, Valencia asserted his Fifth Amendment privileges and declined to address any of Miller’s questions.
Prior to questioning, Valencia had handed Cooper a large folder of sealed evidence from the department’s investigation.
Miller asked LASD detective Mike Davis, who’s conducting the department’s investigation of the shooting, whether he saw any of the events leading to Guardado’s death. But Davis also asserted Fifth Amendment privileges and declined to answer questions about the case.
Cooper allowed Valencia and Davis to leave the courtroom but said their invocation of the Fifth Amendment is likely “overbroad.” Cooper reminded the officers they are still subject to her subpoena and can be called in again to testify.
Vega, the officer who fatally shot Guardado, was also called to testify, but according to a statement to the court from his attorney Adam Marangell, Vega is out of the country and unavailable until next month.
Cooper said she had not received any declaration from Vega asserting Fifth Amendment privileges and he’s still under subpoena.
Lianna Darabedyan, a coroner’s investigator who examined the scene of the shooting, testified that a gun was found within five feet of Guardado’s head.
Police have said Guardado’s DNA, but not his fingerprints, were found on the pistol.
Darabedyan also testified that Davis, the LASD investigator, told her at the scene of the shooting that Vega fired his weapon after Guardado appeared to “reach for his waistband.”
Davis’ secondhand account of what triggered the shooting contradicts Marangell’s prior statement that Vega fired his gun after Guardado reached for a gun on the ground.
LA County deputy medical examiner Kevin Young told Miller that each of the five gunshot wounds to Guardado’s body had “independent lethal capacity,” meaning they were each fatal on their own.
Young affirmed the coroner’s findings that the bullets had a “slightly upwards” trajectory from Guardado’s back to his torso and told Miller that Guardado could have been on his knees and bending forward when he was killed but that he couldn’t determine where the teen’s hands were when Vega fired his weapon.
Guardado’s fatal injuries were documented in a report released in July by LA County Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Jonathan Lucas.
Lucas’ report concluded the manner of death was homicide, that Guardado had no drugs or alcohol in his system and that Vega fired the shots at close range. An independent autopsy commissioned by Guardado’s family reached the same conclusion.
LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva had sought to block the release of Lucas’ report, saying it would jeopardize the integrity of his department’s investigation of the shooting. Villanueva has also said video of the Guardado shooting is not available since officers were not wearing body cameras and squad cars were not equipped with recording devices.
In September, LA county supervisors directed Lucas’ department to conduct a public inquest into Guardado’s case.
Before adjourning Monday, Cooper said she will review LASD’s sealed evidence and consult with county counsel on whether more witnesses need to be called. Cooper also indicated she will decide whether officers can only assert Fifth Amendment privileges for certain lines of questioning.
All current subpoenas issued by Cooper remain in effect until the inquest has concluded.
Guardado’s death further catalyzed protests demanding police accountability in LA County as uprisings against police violence were already taking place nationwide.
Guardado’s parents, Elisa and Cristobal Guardado, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in August against the department, claiming unreasonable and excessive force and a failure to stamp out a secret officer gang called the Executioners. The complaint, filed in LA County Superior Court, alleges Vega and his partner, deputy Chris Hernandez, have possible ties to that gang or another police gang called the 3,000 Boys.