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LA County sheriff’s deputy found not guilty in manslaughter trial

The officer was acquitted of manslaughter in the February 2016 fatal shooting of a man in the parking lot of a convenience store.

(CN) — LA County sheriff's deputy Luke Liu was found not guilty of manslaughter by a jury on Friday, after a two-week trial. It is the first time since 2020 that a law enforcement officer has been prosecuted for an on-duty shooting.

Liu ignored questions from reporters as he left the courtroom. Deputy District Attorney Chris Baker declined to comment. Liu's attorney, Mitchel Schwartz, would say only, "We're happy the jury found what we think is the right verdict."

The fatal shooting occurred more than five years ago in February 2016. Liu was on patrol in Norwalk, a small city 17 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, when he spotted an Acura Integra he believed to be stolen in the parking lot of a 7-11. He pulled into the lot and approached the driver, 26-year-old Francisco Garcia. Liu, 36 and an 8-year veteran of the sheriff's department, spoke to Garcia, who sat in the driver's seat.

Liu walked around to the back of the car to radio in the license plate number. As he walked back toward Garcia, Garcia began to pull away. Liu took out his gun and fired seven shots. Four hit Garcia. Though Liu attempted to perform life-saving measures, Garcia died shortly thereafter.

Then-City Attorney Jackie Lacey filed manslaughter charges against Liu in December 2018, nearly three years after the shooting. Lacey had been under pressure to charge law enforcement officers for misconduct, especially in fatal shootings of unarmed suspects. She had previously declined to press charges against an LAPD officer for fatally shooting a homeless man, even though then-Chief Charlie Beck had actually called for the cop to be prosecuted. The non-prosecution of police officers became a major campaign issue, and was seen as a reason she was defeated in 2020 by now-City Attorney George Gascon.

The jury deliberated for less than a full day before reaching the verdict. After it was read, Liu appeared to break down, hugging his attorney. The family of Garcia also broke down. One of those family members yelled something at Liu as she left the courtroom.

The sheriff department's policy states that deputies are not to fire into vehicles, moving or otherwise, unless the deputy is being threatened with "deadly force by means other than the moving vehicle."

The key issue in Liu's trial was whether or not the deputy acted in self defense. Baker argued that Liu did not, saying in his closing statement, "The defendant made one tragically bad decision after another, contrary to common sense, contrary to his own training and contrary to his own departmental policy. He lost his head... if that situation was dangerous to anyone, that danger was caused by the defendant himself and his own terrible decisions.”

Schwartz told the jury that Garcia's car had struck Liu's knees, thought a number of witnesses at the trial said the car did not strike Liu. Schwartz said that Liu thought he saw Garcia reaching around in the back for something. Liu feared it was a gun. No firearm was recovered from Garcia's vehicle.

Liu did not testify at the trial, and the defense called only one witness, a use-of-force expert.

Garcia's family sued LA County in 2017 for wrongful death and excessive force. The parties settled in 2018, months before Lacey filed charges, for $1.75 million.

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