Suit over deadly SWAT incident axed

(AP)   A judge abruptly dismissed a lawsuit Monday over the 2005 death of a 19-month-old girl who died when her father used her as a human shield during a furious gun battle with Los Angeles police.

Granting a motion by the city, Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu took the wrongful death case away from jurors as they were scheduled to begin hearing final arguments.

Based on trial testimony, there was no way the panelists could have concluded that police officers acted unreasonably, Treu ruled.

The ruling was disappointing, said Luis A. Carrillo, an attorney for the girl’s mother.

“The community should have had a voice in this. The jurors are representatives of the community,” he said.

Carrillo said he did not know immediately if the ruling would be appealed.

Attorney Todd Hayward, co-counsel representing the city, said the judge went through factual records developed during the trial and found that everything officers had done in the course of the incident was necessary and appropriate.

“These officers tried to do what they could to save this young child,” added Christian Bojorquez, lead counsel for the city.

Police said the father of Suzie Pena was under the influence of drugs when he began a 2 1/2-hour gun battle with police on July 10, 2005.

Jose Raul Pena, 35, barricaded himself in the office of his used-car dealership in the Watts area of South Los Angeles. Police said he held a gun in one hand and his daughter in the other, using her as a shield.

The child was shot in the head and leg and died in his arms. Pena also was killed, and one officer was wounded.

A coroner’s report concluded the girl was killed by a bullet from a police SWAT team that stormed the building.

Autopsies found drugs including cocaine and methamphetamine in the father’s system. Some 250 bullets were fired from more than a dozen weapons during the battle.

The girl’s death prompted demonstrations by activists. The girl’s mother, Lorena Lopez, sued the city for wrongful death and negligence, with her attorneys claiming police should have used other tactics.

Attorneys for the city argued the officers believed the girl was in immediate danger and they were trying to save her.

Out of the jury’s presence on Monday, the judge told attorneys for both sides, along with police and the girl’s mother that the police were facing a man who had “intoxicated his brain” with drugs and couldn’t be reasoned with, who “ranted and raved,” threatened to kill his daughters and others and fired at police, Carrillo said.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office declined to file criminal charges against police officers after the shooting, saying they acted lawfully.

A memo from the district attorney’s office said officers had gone to the used-car lot after Pena’s stepdaughter called 911 to say he was verbally abusing her. At one point, the memo said, Pena got a gun and began firing at police.

During telephone negotiations, Pena acted irrationally, believed he was the Tony Montana character from the movie “Scarface,” and threatened to kill his toddler daughter and others, according to the memo.

The city’s Police Commission also investigated the shooting. The civilian panel concluded the incident was mishandled early on because of poor communication and leadership, but it found fault with only two of the dozens of officers who were at the scene.

Police Chief William Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa assigned a panel to analyze tactics used by the SWAT team and the chief later said some tactics were altered.

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