A now-former security guard at a Hollywood Walgreens store pleaded not guilty Thursday to a murder charge stemming from the shooting death of a man he suspected of shoplifting at the pharmacy.
Donald Vincent Ciota, 28, of Covina, was ordered to return to court Feb. 13, when a date will be set for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for him to stand trial for the Dec. 2 killing of Jonathan Hart, 21.
Ciota remains jailed on $3 million bail, despite a request by his attorney, Mark Geragos, to have bail reduced to about $100,000. Geragos contended the circumstances of the crime don’t warrant a murder charge, and said his client at most should be facing a manslaughter charge.
Investigators allege that Ciota confronted Hart inside the Walgreens pharmacy on Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street and the two men became involved in a physical altercation. Ciota then pulled out his firearm and allegedly shot Hart in the back of his neck as he ran away, according to prosecutors and a coroner’s report.
A witness told CBS2 that Hart was carrying something as he walked near the door to use the ATM. The witness said he knew Hart, whom he believed to be homeless and suffering from mental illness.
If convicted as charged, Ciota faces a possible maximum sentence of 50 years to life in prison, according to prosecutors.
An attorney for Hart’s family claims Hart was targeted because he was black and gay. Attorney Carl Douglas also questioned why Walgreens only has armed security guards at four stores in the Los Angeles area.
“Each of these stores are in the black, brown and homeless and LGBT communities, and we want to know why,” Douglas said at a Dec. 11 news conference.
Walgreens issued a statement in response, saying the company had “extended our deepest and most sincere condolences” to Hart’s family, and noted that as a result of the shooting, “we immediately terminated the security company” that hired the guard.
“We are committed to providing a safe environment for our employees, patients and customers in the communities we serve,” according to the company. “We contract for armed and unarmed security, as well as video surveillance, in our stores based on the public safety needs of each location. We operate in thousands of communities and neighborhoods across the nation and the suggestion that we would inappropriately serve any community is simply false. We firmly believe everyone should be welcomed and treated equally in all of our stores.”
The company said in the statement that it has “cooperated with authorities and will continue to support their prosecution of this case.”
Douglas insisted that Hart, also known as Sky Young, was not shoplifting. He said Hart and another black man were in the store, and at one point while inside the store, one of them picked up a $2.99 water flavoring product. The guard confronted the men and got into an argument with Hart, the attorney said.
“The guard feels the man push him one time,” Douglas said. “The guard pushes the man back one time. The guard watches as the man turns to run toward the back door. The guard raises his gun and points at the man. The guard says, `Freeze,’ as the man travels toward the door. The guard fires one shot, striking the man in the back of the neck. The guard watches as the man crumbles to the ground.”
Hart died at a hospital. Douglas said the only thing in Hart’s hands when he died was a California ID card.
“Jonathan was not shoplifting,” he said. “Let me repeat that. Jonathan was not shoplifting when he was shot. That’s the propaganda Walgreens wants you to report.”
“I dare say, Jonathan Hart was profiled because he was homeless,” Douglas said. “He was harassed because he was gay, and he was shot because he was black.”
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