When Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Luke Liu opened fire on a car in Norwalk in February 2016, shots did not spread far beyond the parking lot where he pulled out his weapon.
There was no protest that night following the death of Francisco Garcia. No public demands for the intervention of the prosecutor’s office. There is no dramatic video that could spark controversy over Liu’s death decision.
Few have heard of the case where the then Los Angeles County County. Atty. Jackie Lacey indicted Liu on manslaughter charges in December 2018, calling the MP’s decision to shoot Garcia’s car as he drove away “unjustified and unfounded.”
Liu’s case could now serve as a litmus test for the jury’s willingness to convict peacekeepers in light of a nationwide assessment of police use of force, as he becomes the first law enforcement officer to stand trial for shooting duty in Los Angeles. County for over two decades.
Opening arguments in Liu’s manslaughter trial may begin as early as Wednesday, and for some observers, the fact that the case will be heard from inside the courtroom, while many other controversial shootings have not, is itself a milestone. …
“Over 1,500 shots fired by officers without charge,” said Miriam Krinsky, a former federal attorney and observer for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who is now the executive director of the national network of progressive prosecutors. “So the fact that we do have a case where charges have been filed where there is an attempt to hold someone wearing a badge accountable during a routine shooting is of great importance.”
Liu was on patrol on Alondra Boulevard, near the Cerritos-Norwalk border, when he pulled into the 7-Eleven parking lot to investigate a potential stolen car. When Liu approached Garcia to ask who owned the car, Garcia replied, “It’s none of your business,” according to the sheriff’s department report.
According to the court records, Liu walked to the back of the car and then walked towards the driver. At this point, Garcia began to drive away at a slow speed. Liu claimed that the car hit him on his knees and that he saw Garcia reaching for something, as the tapes show. Fearing that Garcia was trying to get a weapon, Liu started shooting.
Liu fired at least seven shots and hit Garcia four times, a medical examiner said at a preliminary hearing in 2019. Liu tried to save his life after the shootout, but Garcia died soon after.
At the preliminary hearing, several witnesses denied Liu’s claim that he had been hit by a car. Garcia was unarmed and no pistol was found at the scene. Liu also indicated that he knew Garcia was unarmed while performing resuscitation, according to testimony from the Cerritos College Police Campus who responded to the scene.
Liu’s tactics ran counter to the policies of most of the city’s major law enforcement agencies, which warn officers against shooting at moving vehicles when the driver is otherwise unarmed, even if they try to ram the officer. Most tactical experts say that standard police duty weapons are unlikely to stop the car, and if the shot fails, the driver can only turn the car into a lethal weapon.
In 2016, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department policy governing such situations discouraged officers from firing at fleeing vehicles when the suspects were unarmed, but did not explicitly prohibit firing. At the time, the policy was pending. The Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to questions about Liu’s politics or status in the department. Liu was a deputy for about eight and a half years at the time of the shooting.
While Lacy was indicting, Liu’s case could also predict how the Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascon will fulfill his mission of holding the police accountable in cases of the use of force. Gascon has already indicted a Torrance police officer and a Long Beach school security guard this year in separate shootings, and the Long Beach case is very similar to the one brought against Liu.
In years past, prosecutors and legal observers have frequently cited concerns about a jury’s willingness to convict a police officer as a reason not to press charges of shooting in the line of duty. But Gascon was elected on a platform burdened with police accountability after a summer when tens of thousands of people flooded streets in Los Angeles and across the country following the assassination of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Liu’s lawyer, Michael Schwartz, has won a series of acquittals in high-profile cases of the use of force. While he acknowledged that the “landscape” of such cases had changed, he said that in the end he did not believe that social forces would influence the outcome.
“This case, like any other, should be considered in court. Not in the court of public opinion, ”he said. “If past experiences have taught us something … something that is rarely the whole story in the media, or even an accurate story and an accurate picture of what really happened.”
The trial can last up to a month, according to the deputy. Atty. Christopher Baker, chief prosecutor in the case. Schwartz expects about a dozen witnesses from both sides to be called, but did not say if Liu planned to speak in his own defense.
If Liu is found guilty, he faces up to 11 years in prison. He was initially charged with weapon enhancements that could add up to ten years to his sentence, but that charge was dropped last December shortly after Gascon announced his policy prohibiting the use of sentencing enhancements.
Krinsky said she believes the conviction could have a significant impact on the behavior of police officers in California in the future, but hopes that the mere sight of Liu sitting at the defense table will send a signal to Los Angeles County residents that law enforcement officials will face consequences if they act recklessly.
“At the end of the day, we want and expect district attorneys to look at the facts and treat those wearing the badge no more favorably than anyone else and try to exclude emotion from the decision,” she said. “If we are going to restore public confidence in law enforcement, we must be prepared to refer these cases to a jury.”