Since June, activists and family members of slain 18-year-old Andres Guardado have demanded to know what led an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy to shoot the teen five times in the back. Today, the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner announced an inquest into Guardado’s death, starting Nov. 30.
A coroner’s inquest is a public hearing that examines the circumstances, manner and cause of someone’s death. They’re not that common — the last inquest in L.A. County was over 30 years ago — but they do occur in certain circumstances, such as if someone dies in custody or due to the actions of a police officer.
In September, the County Board of Supervisors approved a motion directing the medical examiner-coroner to investigate Guardado’s death. “It is beyond troubling that the investigation of Mr. Guardado’s killing has been conducted by LASD under a deliberate cloud of secrecy,” the motion reads.
In the motion, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas accused the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department of repeatedly resisting oversight efforts, referencing not only the Guardado investigation but also an instance last summer when the LASD shut down the Office of Inspector General’s computer terminals that granted access to LASD discipline records.
According to a press release from the medical examiner-coroner, the department has appointed retired Justice Candace Cooper to preside over the inquest. The department will also subpoena witnesses to testify and present relevant documents during the course of the investigation, then Cooper will present her decision and recommendations.
“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,” Dr. Jonathan Lucas, Los Angeles County’s chief medical examiner-coroner, said in a statement. “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.”
If you haven’t been following the Guardado case closely, here’s a refresher: On June 18, sheriff’s deputies Miguel Vega and Chris Hernandez approached Guardado near an autobody shop where he worked as an informal security guard. The deputies claim they spotted a gun and that Guardado ran when he saw them. They chased after him. Vega opened fire, shooting Guardado six times. Investigators claim a “ghost gun” was recovered from the scene.
Vega’s attorney, Adam Marangell, issued a statement on behalf of his client, the Los Angeles Times reported. He said Vega ordered Guardado to lie on the ground, facedown, and drop his weapon. Guardado complied, but the gun remained close to his right hand. According to Marangell, Guardado reached for the gun as Vega went to cuff him. That’s when Vega claims to have shot him in self-defense.
The Board of Supervisors’ motion notes that LASD investigators didn’t take Vega’s statement until a month after the incident, and only after the sheriff’s department concluded there was no available video footage.
The LASD also put a security hold on Guardado’s autopsy report, prompting his family to obtain their own independent autopsy, which showed the teen was shot five times in the back. The medical examiner-coroner’s office defied the security hold and released its own report, which confirmed the same findings.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva criticized the move, saying it had “the potential to jeopardize the investigation, the filing of the case, and any possible future criminal or administrative proceedings.” Today, the Board also approved a motion to explore ways they might remove Villanueva from power or limit his responsibilities.
This inquest draws parallels to at least two others in the last 50 years in which men of color died in suspicious circumstances involving cops. In 1981, Ron Settles, a 21-year-old Black Cal State football player, was found dead in a jail cell. Officers said they arrested him because he wouldn’t provide a driver’s license or his name after he was pulled over for speeding. Authorities said he hung himself with a mattress cover, but a former inmate said he heard Settles being beaten. A coroner’s jury decided 5-4 that Settles’ death was a homicide, but ultimately, a grand jury declined to prosecute anyone, and the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
An inquest also followed after the death of journalist Ruben Salazar, who was fatally shot in the head with a tear gas canister while covering the Chicano Moratorium in East L.A. in 1970. The deputy who killed Salazar was not prosecuted.